Potent emotions and engaging characters are the hallmarks of "Barrio Cuba," a rangy, earthy item from esteemed helmer Humberto Solas that strips away the tourist view of la Isla. The film's raw energy and insider view make it a companion piece to Fernando Perez's gentler, subtler "Havana Suite." Fest bookings are likely.

This review was updated on Jan. 4, 2006.

Potent emotions and engaging characters are the hallmarks of “Barrio Cuba,” a rangy, earthy item from esteemed helmer Humberto Solas that strips away the tourist view of la Isla. While the pic stumbles, particularly over its final reel, too close to the old schmaltz formulas, this warmly human portrait of a society desperately seeking upbeat moments in relentlessly downbeat circumstances provides an invaluable cinematic record of a city that looks on the verge of collapse. The film’s raw energy and insider view make it a companion piece to Fernando Perez’s gentler, subtler “Havana Suite.” Fest bookings are likely.

Pic dextrously interweaves three stories using scenes that rarely exceed three minutes — editing is top notch throughout. In the first, nurse Magalis (Luisa Maria Jimenez) is the target of unwanted amorous approaches from aging timberyard worker Ignacio (wolfish Mario Limonta). After he cuts himself while watching her cycle past, he is taken to the hospital, where it is Magalis who attends to him.

The second yarn is about the sexually passionate relationship between trucker El Chino (Jorge Perugorria) and pharmacy worker Vivian (Isabel Santos), who gets pregnant but loses the child, putting a strain on their relationship that the rest of pic explores. The third story has pregnant Maria (Ana Dominguez) returning to La Havana to live with husband Santo (Rafael Lahera) and his mother Amparo (Adela Legra). All is happiness until Maria, close to giving birth, unexpectedly dies.

The stories wind up to three somewhat throwaway happy endings that feel at odds with all the carefully worked emotional realism that has come before.

A testament to the resilience of Cubans in dealing with their social circumstances, pic presents an array of needy characters struggling to find a little happiness to hold onto. The script regularly spills over into the kind of blood ‘n’ tears excess of the telenovela, but the success of the thesps in gustily dramatizing a range of different types of desperation means that the film never becomes mere kitsch. All perfs are strong, with Jimenez, Limonta and the young Ruben Araujo, who plays an abandoned son, standing out.

Though “Barrio Cuba” never presses its political point, it is there in every sweeping panoramic view of Havana and in every cramped, dark interior. Every wall is peeling paint, and the sense of urban decay is tangible. The slightly sepia tone of the film cleverly plays against standard filmic representations of Cuba as a place of vibrant hues, suggesting that the only colors in these blighted lives are the ones the characters can generate themselves. Production values conceal the low budget.

Lensing by Carlos Rafael Solis is superb throughout, but his eye for the self-consciously iconographic image — for example, a couple kissing under a full moon as a steam train pulls away — sometimes sits uneasily amid the gritty authenticity. Esteban Puebla’s score veers between delicate and over-the-top orchestral lush, but use of songs, especially Carlos Varela’s “Gray Afternoon,” is more successful.

Barrio Cuba

Spain-Cuba

Production

An ICAIC (Cuba)/Fine Prods. (Spain) production. (International sales: Fine Prods., Madrid). Produced by Camilo Vives, Jorge Gomez, Santi Camunas. Executive producers, Isabel Prendes, Leonardo Gomez Blanco, Lucia Janto. Directed by Humberto Solas. Screenplay, Solas, Elias Solas, Sergio Benvenuto.

Crew

Camera (color), Carlos Rafael Solis; editor, Nino Martinez Sosa; music, Esteban Puebla; sound (Dolby Digital), Raul Amargot (Nikita), Alex F. Capilla. Reviewed at Casa de America, Madrid, Nov. 30, 2005. (In Huelva Iberoamerican and Palm Springs film festivals.) Running time: 106 MIN.

With

Luisa Maria Jimenez, Jorge Perugorria, Isabel Santos, Mario Limonta, Adela Legra, Rafael Lahera, Ana Dominguez, Yeandro Tamayo.
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