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Like a mojito that overdoes it on the lime juice, the omnibus film 7 Days in Havana (7 dias en La Habana) has a few veritable sweet spots but winds up leaving a rather sour aftertaste. Made by a cortege of Croisette alumni including Laurent Cantet, Gaspard Noe and Elia Suleiman, as well as Benicio Del Toro in his directorial debut, the seven shorts offer up some vibrant bits of local color and plenty of great music, yet seem to mostly scratch the surface of a place that rarely gets the time of day in contemporary cinema. Still, the impressive settings and line-up of auteur all-stars – not to mention an appearance by The Hunger Games’ Josh Hutcherson – should ensure solid offshore play following a premiere in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard.
Oscillating between a sightseer’s tour of the island (now in its 53rd year of Castro rule, with Raul having officially replaced Fidel as of 2008) and a more intimate portrait of some of its denizens, the ensemble of short films are structured to fit in a single week, with one movie per day and a handful of characters who reappear in several of them. If the patchwork of stories captures the many layers of life in Havana – from the desolate 4-star hotels to the shabby dwellings of its huge underclass – the overall effect is that of a fun-filled vacation that reveals nothing extremely new or original about Cuba, and tends to steer clear of any direct political commentary.
The more touristy fare kicks off with Del Toro’s El Yuma, which follows a young American actor, Teddy (Hutcherson), during a wild and crazy night that includes plenty of beer, rum, girls, hookers and eventually a transvestite that he unwittingly takes back to his room. If there are no major surprises in the short – whose title is Cuban slang for “American” – the long and drunken trip is an easy enough ride, especially since Teddy seems to remain fairly aloof to all the poverty and prostitution around him.
A similar premise is proffered in Pablo Trapero’s Jam Session, which follows two-time Palme d’Or winner Emir Kusturica as he accepts an honorary prize from the Havana Film Festival in between bouts of drinking and schmoozing with local musicians. While nothing really special happens throughout the romp, it features some catchy handheld footage, including an extended sequence-shot that follows the Serbian director from the pits of a down and dirty nightclub to the city’s breathtaking shores.
Of all the Lonely Planet-esque works, the strongest one is Elia Sulieman’s Diary of a Beginner, in which the Palestinian filmmaker applies his trademark combination of Keaton and Tati-style humor to explore the world in and around his upscale hotel. There’s plenty of irony and some powerful compositions in these telling vignettes, and the one where the director watches tourists and prostitutes mingle beside a life-size bronze of Hemingway is perhaps the most memorable in the whole series.
As for the more socially conscious fare, things initially take a turn towards pure kitsch in The Temptation of Cecilia, where Spanish director Julio Medem (Sex and Lucia) tackles the dilemma of a local singer (Cristela de la Caridad Herrera) with all the subtlety of a Telemundo series. A decent cameo by Daniel Bruhl can only partially redeem the only short to specifically deal with Cubans trying to flee their homeland, but the overlit photography, slow-motion sex scenes and weepy ballades don’t do the story any service.
Native Cuban Jean Carlos Tabio (Guantanamera) fairs better with Bittersweet, in which his favored actress Mirta Ibarra plays a mom working overtime as both a baker and a shrink, trying to make ends meet during one disastrous afternoon. Likewise, French director Laurence Cantet (The Class) offers up a more realistic view of local life in The Fountain, a very documentary-style portrait of the residents in a ramshackle Havana building who team up to build an altar to the Virgin Mary.
Never afraid to raise eyebrows, Gallic bad boy Gasper Noe dishes out the most edgy entry with Ritual, where a teenage girl is subjected to the freaky mojos of a local witch doctor after she’s caught in bed with a girlfriend. Featuring an opening sequence that depicts the sort of booty-bopping usually seen in a Sean Paul video, and an extended voodoo scene where the underage victim is stripped down in a swamp, this provocative exercise provides minor aesthetic thrills.
Songs and on-screen performances by talented local musicians, including Kelvis Ochoa (Habana Blues) and trumpet player Alexander Abreu, supply a welcome musical backdrop to what’s ultimately a pleasant but somewhat forgettable Havana holiday.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard)
Production companies: Full House, Morena Films, Havana Club International SA
Cast: Josh Hutcherson, Emir Kusturica, Daniel Bruhl, Vladimir Cruz, Alexander Abreu, Mirta Ibarra, Melvis Esteves, Cristela de la Caridad Herrera
Directors, screenwriters: Benicio Del Toro, Pablo Trapero, Julio Medem, Elia Suleiman, Gaspar Noe, Juan Carlos Tabio, Laurent Cantet
Producers: Alvaro Longoria, Gael Nouaille, Laurent Baudens, Didar Domehri, Fabien Pisani
Executive producers: Cristina Zumarraga, Pilar Benito
Directors of photography: Daniel Aranyo, Diego Dussuel
Editors: Thomas Fernandez, Rich Fox, Veronique Lange, Alex Rodriguez, Zack Stoff
Sales Agent: Wild Bunch
No rating, 130 minutes
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