With seven shorts over seven days, in 7 Days In Havana Del Toro, Trapero, Medem, Suleiman, Noé, Tabio and Cantet journey into the hidden delights of the Cuban capital.
Cuba, Je T’Aime by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers.
Like Paris Je T’Aime or New York I Love You, 7 Days In Havana is Cuba’s very own love-letter to its capital city. Comprised of seven stories over the course of one week by a collection of six gringos and one native islander, 7 Days In Havana charts a slow course into the heart of Cuba. But with all seven sections scripted by novelist Leonardo Padura Fuentes, this anthology film echoes the experience of a tourist with a week in the city uncovering the real Havana with the Cuban scriptwriter for his guide.
We begin with Teddy, a film student embarking on a semester in Havana. He hooks up with a friend of a friend, a Soviet-educated engineer who now works as a taxi driver. As night falls, Teddy leaves the awkward generosity of his impoverished host family and heads into Havana on a bar crawl. He’s the typical holidaymaker, loved up on mojitos and cigarillos and on the prowl. Starring Josh Hutcherson of The Hunger Games and The Kids Are All Right, Benicio del Toro’s second short in 17 years isn’t daring enough to put its accidental sex tourist hero in real danger, quickly backtracking to safety when Teddy discovers his date for the night is actually a man in drag.
Pablo Trapero’s Jam Session is a mature continuation of El Yuma, with Emir Kusturica starring as a version of himself – surly alcoholism replacing the Serbian director’s own outspoken controversies. Negotiating a long-distance mobile-phone argument with a loved one, Kusturica’s alter ego is in Havana to receive a lifetime achievement award from the Havana Film Festival, barely remaining sober long enough to take the podium. His rum-soaked befuddlement is eased by his taxi driver, who this time moonlights as a trumpet-playing jazz virtuoso. Somewhat reluctantly invited to an after-hours jam session, visitor and islander enjoy a momentary meeting of musical minds – the fiesta a glimpse of Cuban conviviality beyond the beaten track. A moment beyond the differences of islander and foreigner and beyond the easily broken promises of the visitor offering a better life abroad.
It’s a baton taken up by Julio Medem in the next short, La Tentación De Cecilia. Starring Daniel Brühl as the Spanish out-of-towner offering a life of milk and honey overseas, this short is a two-hander, a delicate balance of stories. It’s fitting that Medem’s film should be the closest to a love story 7 Días En La Habana offers, as Cecilia chooses between a burgeoning love affair with the handsome impresario and a life singing in the Costas or remaining behind in Cuba with her over-talented but futureless baseball-star boyfriend Jose. It’s a theme that recurs throughout 7 Days In Havana, of underused talent desperate for fulfilment. And it’s a promise that, somewhat strangely, can only be fulfilled in foreign climes despite the fact Cecilia and Jose both already have their dream jobs firmly within their underpaid grasp.
Thursday, and Elia Suleiman’s Diary Of A Beginner is an almost-silent, almost-surreal take on another director’s alter ego exploring the city. ES is due to interview a prominent Cuban figure, and as Fidel Castro’s speech extends hour upon hour, he wanders the streets and beaches, losing himself in his kaleidoscopic labyrinth of a hotel. It’s a pleasurable disorientation – a silent observer looking in, and the almost wordlessness of the Palestinian director gives the short a rare touch of native authenticity. Gaspar Noé’s Ritual is similarly dialogue-free – a powerful rhythm of pulsating drums and jump-cuts as Yamilslaidi is cleansed of her lesbian leanings in a voodoo rite. It’s a beautiful, stark look at black magic, with all the Caribbean enchantment of Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked With A Zombie.
Dulce Amargo, directed by the co-director of Strawberry And Chocolate and the film’s only Cuban, Juan Carlos Tabío paints a picture of habanero domesticity away from the prying eyes of foreign visitors. It’s the bittersweet tale of Mirta, a doctor who juggles her evening job as a TV personality with her moneymaking sideline in cake baking. The short film brings back songstress Cecilia and transvestite Ramoncito, just as Teddy’s taxi driver reappeared in La Tentación De Cecilia. Cecilia’s decision is revealed, choosing instead to make the crossing on a raft to the land of plenty with Jose. And while Mirta’s wig-obsessed helper Ramoncito may provide a bit of self-referential postmodernism, the characters’ recurrence reveals more about Cuba’s community spirit than their individual stories. It might be vaguely patronising to see Cuba’s talented heading off into uncertainty on a precarious raft, but Dulce Amargo certainly shows the lengths the islanders will go to to make ends meet and secure a better life.
Community is also at the heart of Laurent Cantet’s La Fuente, in which Martha’s dreams of a celebration to Ochun filled with gold drapes, yellow paint and a fountain in her living room are fulfilled by the kindness of neighbours. The seven-day anthology ends with a fiesta – a riot of Cuban colour, togetherness and Caribbean spirituality. It’s sex and cigars that bring in the tourists, but it’s rum and dreams that bring the people of Havana together.
In 7 Días En La Habana however, it’s music that brings the two worlds together, flowing all the way through the sequence of shorts from voodoo, disco, trombone and bolero to the African rhythms of Ochun worship. It’s a curious irony that Leonardo Padura Fuentes’ narrative journey into the real Cuba, from Teddy the American sex-tourist to its bayside community worshipping Ochun, is belied by its stories of talented Habaneros looking for better lives on the outside. But lashing together the creative powers of all these great international directors, Padura has found himself a raft that’s land ahoy.
7 Days In Havana is released on 6th July 2012 in the UK