'Sin Alas (Without Wings)': Film Review

Sin Alas still 1-Yulisleivís Rodrígues- H 2016
Courtesy of Franklin Avenue Films
This gorgeously atmospheric film does full justice to its exotic setting.

An elderly Cuban writer ruminates about his past after the death of a former lover in Ben Chace's dreamlike feature shot in Havana.

Havana looks even more beautiful in black-and-white, as illustrated in portions of Ben Chace's experimental indie drama Sin Alas (Without Wings), the first American film to be shot on the island in over 50 years. Inspired by a short story by Jorge Luis Borges, the pic is a dreamlike tale of an aging Cuban writer ruminating about his past after hearing of the death of a former lover. Although stronger on atmosphere than narrative clarity, its gorgeous visuals and sensuous evocation of the exotic setting render it a hauntingly poetic cinematic experience. The film is currently receiving an exclusive theatrical engagement at NYC's recently opened Metrograph cinema.

After a lengthy ballet sequence during the opening credits, we're introduced to the central character, Luis Vargas (Carlos Padron, very affecting), who learns of the death of Isabela (Yulisleyvis Rodriguez) with whom he had an affair decades earlier and hasn't seen since. This leads him to recall memories of both the tumultuous affair — she was married to a party official who discovered them in flagrante delicto — and his pre-Revolution childhood in the town of Hershey, Pa., built by the American chocolate manufacturer for whom his father worked.

Another plot element involves Luis' neighbors, a couple with a young daughter who are constantly embroiled in domestic disputes. Meanwhile, Luis becomes obsessed with identifying a piece of music that he remembers Isabela having danced to many years earlier. In one of the film's more charming sequences, he recruits his amiable friend Ovilio (Maria Limonta) to wander the streets with him, guitar in hand, playing the melody for anyone who'll listen.

Shooting in 16mm, cinematographer Sean Price Williams — whose many indie credits include Listen Up Philip, Queen of Earth and Heaven Knows What — works wonders, alternating between color and black-and-white (for the flashback sequences) and infusing the proceedings with pungent atmosphere. He's aided, of course, by the trapped-in-time milieu which delivers visual interest to every frame.

Featuring a rousing Afro-Cuban score and striking performances by its all-Cuban ensemble, Sin Alas succeeds at making you nostalgic for a time and place you never experienced.

Production: Franklin Avenue Films
Cast: Carlos Padron, Mario Limonta, Yulisleyvis Rodriguez, Lieter Ledesma, Veronica Lynn, Adael Rosales, Camila Arteche
Director-screenwriter-editor: Ben Chace
Producer: Sean T. Lamb
Executive producer: Henry Kasdon
Director of photography: Sean Price Williams
Costume designer: Sandra Delgado
Composer: Aruan Ortiz
Casting: Libia Batista

Not rated, 84 minutes