Giraffes (Jirafas): Havana Review

Smoldering atmospherics and not much more in this disappointingly enervated, stripped-back study of life for a new generation of Cubans.

The latest from leading Cuban indie director Kiki Alvarez is a claustrophobic study of three young people in hiding from the world.

One of an increasing number of Cuban films being made without state intervention, Giraffes indeed has indie written all over it. Using a small cast, basically a single location (the director’s own home), and lots of hand-held camera, this claustrophobic study of three young people in hiding from the world opens interestingly before declining into mannerism and lazy self-indulgence, its dark eroticism unable to conceal its dramatic failures.

Director Kiki Alvarez’s reputation as a flag bearer for Cuban indie cinema could mean festival play, but despite taking an award at the Brooklyn festival earlier in the year, Giraffes is unlikely to travel far on its own merits.

Manuel (Yasmani Guerrero) lives illegally with Lia (Claudia Muniz, also responsible for the script) in a small Havana apartment. She works as a waitress, he reads the lyrics of French artiste Henri Salvador and plays really bad guitar. While they’re together, they generally seek refuge in sex.

Tania (Olivia Manrufo), whose apartment this is, enters and tries to evict them, and when they refuse, she moves into an upstairs room. They receive regular visits from a housing inspector (Mario Guerra), who reminds Tania that she’s no innocent, having herself been evicted a couple of weeks before.

It’s not a bad setup, and could have gone in all sorts of interesting directions -- but in fact neither the characters nor the story go anywhere, with the political theme of why they’re living where they are quickly picked up and dropped, just like so much else in the film.

A couple of interesting developments are suggested -- Tania tries to get Manuel to make her pregnant so they can’t be evicted – but none of them builds up into anything. On the single occasion that the camera leaves the apartment and follows Lia to the restaurant, there’s a wonderful if implausibly over the top scene that makes the viewer wish for more, but once it’s over, we’re back to the apartment.

It’s clear that part of Alvarez’s project is to free himself from the cinematic cliches of well-made plot, character development, conflict, or even direct political comment, but the problem is that Giraffes doesn’t deliver much in their place.

As characters, they make for a pretty uninteresting trio, their uncertainties about how to tackle life coming over as uninspiring passivity. Despite his artistic pretensions, Manuel is just mindless: “I’m afraid, Lia,” he confesses at one point, but the viewer never gets to feel his fear. The women are slightly more complex, but since the film is partly about the lack of communication between them, they barely speak until after the hour point – and when they do, they don’t say much.

Nicolas Ordonez Carrillo’s camera work exploits every nook and cranny of the tiny apartment to good effect, generating an atmosphere that’s both claustrophobic and erotically charged, with occasional moments of visual wit. What does come over loud and clear by the final, carefully composed tableau, is that even the solace of their own bodies has now been exhausted.

The sense of any distinctive directorial vision that could have held it all together is lacking. The script is loose and floppy, with the camera happy to just frame the characters interestingly and watch them improvise; the self-consciously indie title is explained by the briefest of references to the heard-it-before blues songs that Manuel composes.

Production: KA Producciones, Producciones Largasluces, Galaxia 311, Open Roads Media
Cast: Claudia Muniz, Yasmani Guerrero, Olivia Manrufo, Marianela Pupo, Mario Guerra
Director: Kiki Alvarez
Screenwriter: Claudia Muniz
Producer: Kiki Alvarez, Ivonne Cotorruelo, Nicolas Ordonez, Gina Villafane
Director of photography: Nicolas Ordonez Carrillo
Music: Abel Omar Perez
Production designer: Roberti Koramos
Editor: Joanna Montero
Sound: Sergio Fernandez Borras, Gina Villafane
Sales: KA Producciones
No rating, 92 minutes