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A clear-eyed dispatch from the hazardously cloudy middle-ground between documentary and fiction, Hotel Nueva Isla is a demanding, ultimately beguiling combination of the hardscrabble prosaic and the ruminatively poetic. Sensitively deploying fly-on-wall techniques, debutant directors Irene Gutierrez and Javier Labrador compile an intimate, respectful portrait of Jorge de los Rios and the dilapidated former guesthouse in Cuba where he resides. This Cuban/Spanish co-production is a delicate and confident evocation of decay and near-squalor in the vein of Portugal’s maestro of minimalism, Pedro Costa, and its Rotterdam bow should lead to further bookings at discerning festivals.
Gutierrez and Labrador adhere to the information-withholding, gnomic mode that’s become the hallmark of artistically-minded documentaries, with just a single end-titles credit stating that Jorge de los Rios was born in 1954 and died in 2013 (presumably either during or just after production). This information comes as a surprise, as Jorge — a slight, hangdog, laconic, craggy-faced gent with a hand-rolled cigarette seldom far from his lips — looks closer to his seventies than his fifties. There are hints about some kind of military career, and brief mention about family-members, but Hotel Nueva Isla is always much more a matter of show than tell.
In repetitive sequences, we see Jorge painstakingly conducting an activity that’s somewhere between archeology and performance-art as he digs away at the fabric of this crumbling but evidently resilient old edifice. He unearths various bits of bric-a-brac from the hotel’s hey-day – an ornate cake-slice takes on particular importance – but it’s never clear whether Jorge sees himself as executing a grindingly slow kind of one-man refurbishment or if his interventions are supposed to hasten the already far-gone depradations of entropy. Either way, it’s obvious that the task in hand would be beyond even the capabilities of much younger and more energetic solo-worker, and Jorge’s daily routines have clearly become as much time-passing habit as part of any grand scheme.
Other figures appear now and then: Josefina, a middle-aged woman with whom Jorge haphazardly co-habits in one of the establishment’s less unsalubrious bedrooms; her cute little daughter Vivian; and Waldo, a young man with whom Jorge smokes, mopes and chews the cud. There’s also a scene-stealing dog — a lively Jack Russell-type named Pataban, whose comings and goings provide what passes here for dramatic incident. With pace slow, dialogue sparse and score non-existent, Gutierrez and Labrador – who both evidently have a photographer’s “eye” — instead rely heavily on the sheer arresting power of their compositions, and their fixed, tripod-steadied digital images evoke Jorge’s tumbledown milieu without crossing into the aestheticization of poverty.
A crucial contribution is made by Carlos Garcia, whose sound-design is attuned to the rumbling traffic-noises of the unnamed city beyond (presumably Havana), whose skyline is occasionally glimpsed through open windows — the film only allows itself a couple of shots taken beyond the hotel’s precincts. The “constructed” nature of Hotel Nueva Isla is indicated not only by multiple credits for guion (screenplay) but also one that describes Miguel Barbosa as ‘Foley Artist.’ There’s a necessary artificiality at play here, with the ‘characters’ going about their business — sometimes business of an intimate nature — without ever acknowledging the cameras’ presence.
And often the camera just so happens to be in exactly the right place at exactly the right time — as when Pataban, scuttling into view after an unexplained absence, tries to gain access through a door. Perhaps Gutierrez and Labrador just happened to luck out at this juncture, more likely it’s a giveaway that much of what we’re seeing has been staged or re-staged. Such ‘deceptions’ go with the territory, of course, and Hotel Nueva Isla delivers sufficient insight and grace to amply justify a seventy-minute sojourn within its claustrophobic confines.
Venue: International Festival Rotterdam (Bright Future)
Production companies: El Viaje Films, Producciones de la 5ta Avenida
Directors/Screenwriters: Irene Gutierrez, Javier Labrador
Producers: Jose Angel Alayon Devora, Claudia Calvino
Director of photography: Javier Labrador
Editor: Manuel Munoz
Sales: El Viaje Films, Santa Cruz de Tenerife, Spain
No MPAA rating, 71 minutes
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