'Havana Motor Club': Film Review

Courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films
Sputters at times.

Bent-Jorgen Perlmutt's documentary examines the drag racing subculture in Havana.

The 1959 Cuban Revolution resulted in myriad forms of repression, but it will probably come as a surprise that they also included the banning of car racing. It seems that Fidel Castro's government declared the sport dangerous and elitist and therefore outlawed it indefinitely. Of course, that doesn't mean that it actually went away.

Bent-Jorgen Perlmutt's documentary Havana Motor Club concerns the culture of illegal underground drag-racing that inevitably sprang up after the sport was officially eradicated. Concentrating on a small group of indomitable racers, the film showcases their pursuit of their passion which, thanks to Raul Castro's recent reforms, has become more legitimate, with the country holding its first official car race in more than a half a century.

Since the country has been in many ways frozen in time since the revolution, the car culture primarily involves vintage American automobiles, which were known for their gorgeous styling and powerful engines. One of the doc's subjects points out that American cars were at their zenith in the 1950s, and you can see many examples of that decade's glories on the streets of Havana.

The filmmaker shines a spotlight on such ardent racers as father-and-son Tito and Rey, whose gorgeously restored 1955 Chevy, dubbed the "Lighting McQueen" and considered the most famous car in Cuba, is a source of pride; Carlos, Rey's biggest rival, whose souped-up cars rely on parts smuggled into the country by a Cuban-American patron; Jose, whose car "The Black Widow" features a massive engine from a sunken boat that was retrieved off the ocean floor, and who dreams of one day fleeing the country; and Piti, a cancer survivor racing a 1956 Ford Victoria who has mixed feelings about the embargo being lifted since it would favor more privileged drivers.

Some suspense is created when a race is finally authorized by the government, only to be postponed by the 2012 visit by the Pope. In a second attempt, surging crowds, unaccustomed to seeing the automotive power on display, threaten to derail the race because of safety concerns.

Although naturally picturesque thanks to its beautiful settings, virtually unchanged for decades, and the muscular glory of the many vintage automobiles, Havana Motor Club doesn't delve particularly deeply into its subject or its central characters. Despite its brief running time, it feels unnecessarily padded, suggesting that it might have been more effective as a short film. Still, car aficionados, and anyone interested in the political and social changes in Cuba that will be hastened by the restored relations with the U.S., will find much to appreciate here.

Distributor: Samuel Goldwyn Films
Production companies: Gloss Studio, Impact Partners, Perlmutt Productions
Director-screenwriter: Bent-Jorgen Perlmutt
Producers: Bent-Jorgen Perlmutt, Zelmira Gainza, Magnus Andersson
Executive producers: Magnus Andersson, Raja Sethuraman, Dan Cogan
Director of photography: Zelmira Gainza
Editors: Bent-Jorgen Perlmutt, Armando Croda, Julio Perez IV
Composer: Goran Kajfes, David Osterberg

Not rated, 84 minutes