'The Cuban': Film Review

Brainstorm Media
Ana Golja and Louis Gossett Jr. in 'The Cuban'
Gossett provides welcome counterpoint to an uneven melody.
7/31/2020

Cuban jazz sparks a life-changing bond between a dementia patient and his caretaker in a drama starring Louis Gossett Jr.

In its first minutes, The Cuban sums up its central conflict, segueing from the vibrant watercolor visuals and tropical rhythms of its opening-credits sequence to the drab, hushed interiors of a nursing room: joy vs. duty, creativity vs. rigidity, life vs. death.

As scripted by Alessandra Piccione and directed by Sergio Navarretta, that conflict couldn't be clearer — so clear, in fact, that it's often stripped of emotion. That's no fault of the actors, whose understated work reaches beyond the surface to suggest unspoken depths.

This is especially true of Louis Gossett Jr.'s affectingly unpredictable turn as Luis Garcia, a onetime star of the Cuban jazz scene who's living out his last days in a Canadian nursing home. In an often wordless performance that frees him from the heavy-handed exposition of much of the dialogue, the actor embodies the tangled chords of sentiment and the short-circuited mentality of a man suffering from vascular dementia and the beginnings of Alzheimer’s. Until a new caretaker arrives, Luis' accomplished past goes unrecognized by the people around him, and at its haunting best the movie suggests a multitude of unknown lives and experiences among the warehoused elderly.

The story begins with the first day on the job for 19-year-old premed student Mina Ayoub (Ana Golja, of Degrassi: Next Class). At the small nursing home where her aunt Bano (Shohreh Aghdashloo) works as an administrator, Mina is charged with feeding 79-year-old Luis, who doesn't play well with others and spends his days alone and uncommunicative in his room. When she takes instant notice of a poster on his wall featuring Cuban big-band leader Benny Moré, it's more than a matter of music appreciation; it's a direct link to her beloved and worldly grandfather, who was a musician and scholar in her native Kabul.

To the tough-minded Bano, with whom the orphaned Mina lives, and to the facility's hidebound head nurse (Lauren Holly), the girl's interest in Luis is presumptuous and out of line. The nursing home's organizational goal is "peace and quiet," but before long Mina is "going rogue," bringing in jazz records and a portable record player, and subbing Luis' (uneaten) dietitian-prescribed meals with home-cooked plantains and other Cuban specialties. The sensory delights awaken Luis to his memories of life in Havana, and in bits and pieces he tells Mina about his career as the illustrious El Guitarrista, esteemed in Cuba and beyond, sharing stages with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie.

As Mina's new love interest, Kris (Giacomo Gianniotti, of Grey’s Anatomy), all too handily points out, there's cutting-edge science behind her acts of compassion: "Music stimulates the dorsolateral frontal cortex," he notes over burgers. That Kris is working on a doctorate in psychology and knows his way around a guitar are two of the movie's handy coincidences; a local club specializing in the Havana sound is another.

But the filmmakers let that sound shine, with soulful contributions from composer Hilario Duran and lovely singing by Golja — all of it tuned in to the sexual heat of the music as well as its brightness and poignancy. To illustrate Luis' memories, Navarretta and cinematographer Celiana Cárdenas make excellent use of Cuban locations, colorful departures from the Canadian production's unnamed present-day setting. The Havana scenes provide not just a sense of lived-in authenticity but also a welcome touch of the surreal, in dreamily choreographed flashbacks that frequently center on Elena, the singer in Luis' band and object of his undying affection. She's played by Golja, in red lipstick and glamour mode, a fitting parallel to the subdued Mina as she rediscovers her love of singing and comes out of her shell.

The family pressures that form the backdrop of the story offer telling contrast to the newfound urgency in Mina's life. Cousins with Old World ways (Layla Alizada, Kane Mahon) deal a devastating blow to their daughter (Shiva Negar) and her American boyfriend (Jonathan Keltz), and, closer to home, Bano insists on viewing Mina’s choices through her own regrets. Bano's heartbreaking backstory is revealed with admirable economy, Aghdashloo conveying resoluteness and vulnerability in a glance.

Gossett, fresh off Watchmen and a very busy octogenarian, communicates Luis' shifts in perception as he sparks to reminders of his younger days. Within a single scene he can express childlike joy, hard-won dignity and exultant swagger. He can be painfully lost in a medical haze or punishingly angry. The actor never sentimentalizes the character. To its credit, neither does the film. When Luis' son (Richard Chevolleau) shows up, unapologetically cold toward his father, he makes it clear that Luis was not an easy man to live with. And however hopeful the ending, Piccione's screenplay doesn't tie up all the pieces neatly, instead adding another layer of anguish with a smart narrative twist.

Where the movie hits flat notes is in the way it spells out its points rather than letting friction percolate through the action. An argument between Mina and Kris is notably ham-handed in this regard, devoid of romantic tension as well as dramatic heft. Within a schematic premise that finds two people, at opposite ends of the life cycle, reconnecting with happier times and their true selves, the grace notes are what lift the story from the page. Those belong to Aghdashloo, to Holly (who finds them, against the odds, in a stock role), and most of all to Gossett. The Cuban's themes may be easily summed up, but from first scene to last, his Luis remains complex and mysterious.

In virtual release
Distributor: Brainstorm Media
Production companies: A71 Entertainment, S.N.A.P. Films
Cast: Louis Gossett Jr., Ana Golja, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Lauren Holly, Giacomo Gianniotti, Shiva Negar, Jonathan Keltz, Layla Alizada, Tabby Johnson, Kane Mahon, Richard Chevolleau
Director: Sergio Navarretta
Screenwriter: Alessandra Piccione
Producers: Alessandra Piccione, Sergio Navarretta, Taras Koltun, Ana Golja
Executive producers: Paul Golini, Ryan Kimel, Divya Shahani, James O’Donnell, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Louis Gossett Jr.
Director of photography: Celiana Cárdenas
Production designer: Ciara Vernon
Costumer designer: Kristin Somborac
Editor: Jane MacRae
Composer: Hilario Duran

109 minutes