'Epicentro': Film Review | Sundance 2020

Courtesy of Sundance
As aromatic as a fine cohiba cigar.

Hubert Sauper ('Darwin's Nightmare') visits Cuba, the place where it all kicked off and still does, in this discursive documentary, a prizewinner at Sundance.

A country almost too photogenic for its own good, Cuba has starred in more features, particularly documentaries, than might seem strictly proportional to its size, GDP or geopolitical influence. But then again, to repurpose an old Winston Churchill witticism, it's a nation that produces far more history than it can consume locally.

Acclaimed nonfiction filmmaker Hubert Sauper turns his rigorous but compassionate gaze on this fascinating place in Epicentro, winner of the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize for documentary at the 2020 edition of Sundance. A more joyful than usual sojourn for Sauper, whose stringent but sometimes grueling features (Darwin's Nightmare, We Come as Friends) tend to focus on the ravages of capitalism, post-colonialism and war, this mostly cheery work meets some likable locals.

Impoverished but neither broken nor bowed — despite the Trump administration's recent efforts to make them suffer economically — the Cuban subjects come across as resourceful, wised-up survivors, still proud to be living in one of the last communist countries in the world, even if you have to watch what you say around the cops.

The real stars of the show are two cheeky prepubescent girls, Leonelis Arango Salas and Annielys Pelladito Zaldivar, who explain with a little prompting from the offscreen Sauper that they're making a film together about "foreign interference and slavery and about people in the street," which pretty much hits the mark.

Through interactions with these two and many other kids — the "little prophets" as Sauper calls them in the end credits — a cinematic essay is built up in layers that engages with, among many other things: Columbus' first landing on Cuba as the dawn of colonialism; the birth of utopianism at the very same time the New World was discovered; the legacy of the Spanish-American War and Teddy Roosevelt's imperialist ambitions for the island; how the earliest documentaries at the dawn of cinema were also the first works of cinematic propaganda; and the long shadow of modern Cuba's founding fathers, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, whose own reputations are not untainted by propagandistic distortion.

That's just for starters, in a film that weaves together vérité footage with voiceover philosophizing from Sauper himself and clips from an assortment of archive footage. In another filmmaker's hands, this might have become a message-heavy morass, but Sauper and his co-editor, veteran Yves Deschamps (Bruno Dumont's The Life of Jesus, the 2018 restoration of Orson Welles' The Other Side of the Wind) work the material with a remarkable fluidity and gracefulness that's consistently engaging and surprising.

Working as his own cinematographer as usual, Sauper and his minimalist crew succeed in getting close enough to the subjects to feel more like collaborators than interviewers. Or even co-conspirators, given that one late sequence sees Sauper posing as the girls' guardian to help get them into a fancy hotel meant for tourists so they can enjoy the swimming pool.

At moments, the assemblage might verge on becoming too airy and loosey-goosey, losing the thematic thread a bit amidst all the colorful vintage automobiles and the usual picturesque poverty shots characteristic of so many Cuba documentaries. Naturally, there are salty old dogs smoking massive cigars and dancing with beautiful younger women, and lots of singing and playing in the streets from assorted folks, killing time in a country whose image is defined in part by its sleepy sensuality. (A few prostitutes have a chat with Sauper's camera.)

It's never quite clear what the actor Oona Castilla Chaplin (Game of Thrones), daughter of Geraldine Chaplin and granddaughter of Charlie Chaplin, is doing hanging out with Sauper and his friends. But the scene where she and one of the young girls improvise an intense mother-daughter confrontation straight out of a telenovela is a hoot, and she sings a pretty tune, accompanying herself on the ukulele, just before the end.

Like the impressive waves we see encroaching on the island throughout, the film comes in crests and ebbs, and feels like it could have gone on for hours more or just as easily been a short. 

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (World Cinema Documentary Competition) 
Production: A Groype Deux, KGP Filmproduktion, Little Magnet Films
Cast: Hubert Sauper, Oona Castilla Chaplin, Leonelis Arango Salas, Annielys Pelladito Zaldivar, Yorlenis David de la Cruz Leyva, Clarita Sanchez, Feña LeChuck, Juan Padron, Felix Beaton, Menale Kaza, Hans Helmut Ludwig, Deneli Beatriz de la Cruz, Leiva Yailen, Leiva Ortiz, Kirenia Sanchez
Director/screenwriter/cinematographer: Hubert Sauper, based on the book Energie und Utopie by Johannes Schmidl
Producers: Martin Marquet, Daniel Marquet, Gabriele Kranzelbinder, Paolo Calamita
Executive producers: Dan Cogan, Michael Donaldson, Jenny Raskin, Agnes Mentre
Music: Zsuzsanna Varkonyi, Maximilian ‘Twig’ Turnbull
Editors: Yves Deschamps, Hubert Sauper
Sound designer: Karim Weth

Sales: Wild Bunch, CAA

109 minutes