The world is its oyster

30th edition of Havana fest features more than Latin American fare

The cinematic paella on offer at movie houses throughout this buoyantly dilapidated sprawl of a Latin city is peppered with nonregional films and a pinch of top-shelf Hollywood ingredients.

The Habana Film Festival, which concludes today, celebrated its 30th anniversary with its usual Spanish stew of a programming menu, but gringo filmmakers and festgoers are also in ample evidence.

Argentine helmer Pablo Trapero's female-prison drama "Leonera" opened the festival, and true to its Spanish name — Festival Internacional del Nuevo Cine Latinoamericano — the 11-day fest featured mostly regionally produced films among its 114 competing entries, including several Cuban pics. Contributions from further-flung locales included fare from Russia, Africa, Germany, Spain, Italy and Norway.

Canadian director Atom Egoyan's politically tinged family drama "Adoration" was screened Saturday, and the French-Brazilian soccer drama "Linha de Passe," co-directed by "Motorcycle Diaries" helmer Walter Salles and Daniela Thomas, was another high-profile fest entry. Carlo Gabriel Nero's politically driven entry "The Fever" — starring his mother, Vanessa Redgrave — was a U.S.-U.K. co-production that played here.

Fest president Alfredo Guerrero said it was "unusual" that such a long-running fest was dominated by modestly budgeted productions, though he added that many also were "really outstanding."

Dramas and docs were most prevalent on the daily programs, but the Habana Film Festival — as most English-speaking attendees refer to it — also featured musicals, horror films and even several American experimental films from the 1960s.

Other special screenings included a Mike Leigh retrospective featuring the British director's best-known pics, like 1990's "Life Is Sweet," and earlier fare like "Bleak Moments" (1971). Brazilian helmer Fernando Meirelles' latest film, the Julianne Moore starrer "Blindness," also was shown.

"I think the reason my films travel is because they are about people and life, and I presume that's why they resonate with the Cubans," said Leigh, whose current dramedy "Happy-Go-Lucky" also was on the fest program.

Leigh, who makes a point of keeping Hollywood at arm's length, said he believes the prospect of restored relations with the U.S. film community poses some peril for Cuban filmmakers and perhaps this fest.

"It would be a disaster if they become in any sense sullied by Hollywood," he told The Hollywood Reporter. "I've been to some festivals where they genuflect to Hollywood, and I find that unhealthy."

It's been several years since American actors have participated in the Havana fest following a tightening of travel restrictions under the Bush administration.

At the current edition, Puerto Rican-born Benicio Del Toro was on hand to introduce weekend screenings of Steven Soderbergh's two-part political epic "Che," which casts the actor in the iconic title role. Sunday's showing of "Che" in the 5,000-seat Teatro Karl Marx was packed with lay festgoers along with a mostly Latin industry crowd.

But even screenings of low-budget regional fare were generally quite full. Organizers, who include the Cuban film institute ICAIC, estimated overall fest attendance in the hundreds of thousands.

Many local residents and even Cubans from outside the city take vacation time to enjoy the festival and its screenings at theaters throughout Havana. Cost was minimal to attend individual screenings, and films were shown at published showtimes.

Some of the fest venues were a bit down at the heels, but the enthusiasm for most films on display at the cinemas was infectious.

Still, there are those folks nonplused by the dramas and docs on offer, such as a 20-something taxi driver who explained his lack of interest in attending the fest.

"I like films with action," he told THR in passable English. "But when they talk, talk, talk, talk? Uh, no …"

Moviegoers sharing such tastes had no problem getting their fill as the majority of films playing at Havana's cinemas were generally unauthorized copies of the most commercial Hollywood releases. But Cuba also has a proud cinematic history, an internationally recognized film school visited by Soderbergh, Francis Ford Coppola and Steven Spielberg, and a crop of young filmmakers like Pavel Giroud, whose gangster thriller "Omerta" played Habana.

Giroud's period youth drama "La edad de la peseta" copped art direction and cinematography kudos — among the fest's Coral awards — at 2006's Habana Film Festival.

"The highest value of this fest is its programming — it's very diverse," Giroud said. "But it's also very popular. We don't have many things to do here. It's very cheap — and it's air-conditioned."