‘Esther Somewhere’ (‘Esther en alguna parte’): VLAFF Review

Courtesy of Wanda Films
A gentle, seductive piece that successfully balances laughter and tears

Cuban Gerardo Chijona follows up his award-winning 'Ticket to Paradise' with a melancholy comedy about love and friendship in old age

There’s always something attractive about an old fella who still believes in romance, and Esther Somewhere knows it. A gentle, old-fashioned comic yarn about a couple of aging buddies in pursuit of lost love, Esther is full of the old cinematic virtues — it’s based on a satisfyingly twisty plot, good, well-played characters, and after you’ve thrown in a couple of terrific bolero numbers, what’s not to like? A radical, mainstream departure for Gerardo Chijona from his youth drama Ticket to Paradise, Esther’s ability to tug at the universal strings of the heart makes it a suitable candidate for a remake.

One year after her death, widower Lino (the dapper, hangdog 90-something Reynaldo Miravalles) still pines for his wife, Maruja (Daisy Granados). Leaving flowers at her graveside, he meets Larry Po (Enrique Molina), a former actor who now adopts different roles in his everyday life. He tells Lino that Maruja led a secret life as a bolero singer while Lino was working nights, and that he’s now fulfilling a promise to Maruja to let Lino know the truth. Initially Lino doesn’t buy into something so unlikely, but crucially the viewer does, swept forward by the amiable mood.

And what, asks Lino, if Larry had died before Maruja? Maruja had promised to look for the first great love of Larry’s life, Esther. Drawn closer together by Lino’s increasing awareness of Larry’s vulnerability, they set out to find out more about Maruja’s second life by visiting the people who worked with her, among them diva and rival Elenita (Eslinda Nunez), her dresser Huesito (Alicia Bustamante) and golden-hearted prostitute Julieta (Paula Ali), all actresses of renown in Cuba and all of whom come and go entertainingly enough for the few minutes they’re onscreen.

What Lino learns about his former wife will teach him new lessons about gender roles, friendship, and himself. As Larry tells him, during the 35 years of his marriage he wasn’t "man enough" for her, and if you’re a Cuban man, that hurts.

Central to Esther is the Odd Couple, Sunshine Boys-style relationship between Lino and Larry. Miravalles is ambling and calm, registering emotion mostly through his lugubrious expession. Molina, whose film this really is, is a richly conceived character, enjoyably exuberant, sentimental and self-deceiving, and with an ever-present undertow of loneliness. For complexity, none of the other characters comes close.

Eduardo Eimi’s script is satisfyingly roundabout, becoming psychologically subtle when it suggests that Larry’s longing for Esther might only be a figment of his overexcited imagination. A subplot involving Larry’s nephew Ismael (Hector Medina) and his wife, Sofia (Danae Hernandez), doesn’t come to much, suggesting that it might have been squeezed in to supply the project with a few characters of less than pensionable age.

Jose Maria Vitier’s simple, plangent piano theme underscores the heartache, while Rafael Solis’ photography plays up to a slightly run-down Havana’s reputation for romance. The editing, however, is less than polished, sometimes struggling to maintain the through-line in dealing with such a wide range of characters.

Production companies: ICAIC, SONTRAC
Cast: Reynaldo Miravalles, Enrique Molina, Daisy Granados, Laura de la Us, Luis Alberto Garcia, Hector Medina, Danae Hernandez, Elsa Camp, Paula Ali, Alicia Bustamante, Veronica Lynn, Eslinda Nunez
Director: Gerardo Chijona, based on the novel by Elisio Alberto Diego
Screenwriter: Eduardo Eimi
Producer: Camilo Vives, Susana Molina, Francisco Adrianzen
Executive producer: Isabel Prendes
Director of photography: Rafael Solís
Production designers: Nanette García,Lorenzo Urbistondo, Jorge Rafael Zarza
Costume designer: Lorenso Urbiztondo, Nanette Garcia
Editor: Miriam Talavera
Composer: Jose Maria Vitier
Sales: Wanda Vision

No rating, 84 minutes

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