'The Project of the Century' ('La obra del siglo'): Rotterdam Review

Courtesy of International Film Festival Rotterdam
Tepid domestic drama enlivened by regular interpolations of archival television footage

Carlos M. Quintela's Cuba-Argentina-Switzerland-Germany co-production, set and shot on the Caribbean island, was one of three Tiger Award winners at the Dutch festival

Shattered dreams on the most grandiose scale haunt Carlos M Quintela's The Project of the Century (La obra del siglo), an over-ambitious attempt to blend the domestic and the political-historical. Alternating between rural Cuba's moribund present and the revolution-propelled optimism of its recent past, the picture conjures the present-day atmosphere of stultified torpor all too well. World-premiering at Rotterdam, it nabbed one of the three equal Tiger awards in the main competition and proved the most popular of the trio with the public. That it could only manage 117th place in the voting for the the Dutch behemoth's audience award, however, suggests a future largely confined to the festival circuit.

The entirety of the 'action' unfolds in an apartment near the top of a crumbling high-rise block, in the provincial town of Juragua. This small district, known as the 'Electro-Nuclear City', was built for the workers at a nearby power-plant constructed by the Cuban government from 1982 with help from the Soviet allies. Never completed—thanks to the disintegration of the USSR—this huge construction, intended to "light up the whole area" was finally abandoned in 1992.

Among its technical staff was Rafael (Mario Guerra), a schlubby divorcee who now shares his abode with his tetchy, octogenarian father Otto (Mario Balmaseda). Tensions between the pair are exacerbated when Rafael's tearaway, heavily-tattooed 23-year-old son Leo (Leonardo Gascon) following HIS divorce, and escalate further when Rafael's new girlfriend Marta (Damarys Gutierrez) appears on the scene. Light on plot, The Project of the Century is essentially a character-study of three generations of Cuban males, each of them somehow representative of an epoch in the island nation's dramatic post-WW2 history.

Veteran Balmaseda makes the most of what is by far the meatiest role on view, as Otto's grumpiness darkens and sharpens via what seems to be the onset of Alzheimer's Disease. Like his son, he's preoccupied with the past—as indicated by the crafty interpolation of a brief "flashback" that, echoing Steven Soderbergh's use of a Ken Loach picture in The Limey, actually shows Balmaseda acting in Sara Gomez's posthumously-completed Cuban classic One Way Or Another (1974).

Quintela's film—co-written with Abel Arcos, with whom he collaborated on 2011's award-winning mid-lengther The Swimming Pool—is dedicated to the memory of Gomez, whose sudden death at 31 robbed both the country and the world of a vitally pioneering directorial voice. But while those steeped in Cuban cinema, culture and history may find The Project of the Century a rewarding and multi-layered "text", others will more likely lose patience with the humdrum monotony of the present-day scenes. That certainly isn't any discredit to cinematographer Marcos B. Bohorquez's often-striking widescreen monochrome images, at their best when displaying the panoramic view from the apartment's balcony—the squat hump of the nuclear white elephant ever-visible on the horizon.

Proceedings only really come to life when Quintela and editor Yan Vega switch to full-color archival small-screen materials (presented in original ratio) from the Electro-Nuclear City's own television channel, largely comprising propagandistic paeans to the joys of Cuban-Soviet fraternity and collaboration. This material would perhaps have been better presented in relatively straight documentary form, or imaginatively reconfigured in the style of Duncan Campbell or Luke Fowler. As it is, The Project of the Century remains like the Juragua facility itself: a frustratingly squandered opportunity, providing little genuine illumination.

Production companies: Rizoma, Uranio Films, Raspberry & Cream, Ventura Film
Cast: Mario Guerra, Mario Balmaseda, Leonardo Gascon, Damarys Gutierrez
Director: Carlos M. Quintela
Screenwriters: Carlos M. Quintela, Abel Arcos
Producers: Natacha Cervi, Hernan Musaluppi, Pablo Chernov
Cinematographer: Marcos B. Bohorquez
Production designer:
Costume designer: Alicia Arteaga Ramirez
Editor: Yan Vega
Composer: Vicente Rojas
Sales: m-appeal, Berlin
No Rating, 100 minutes