A woman is fatally electrocuted, her distraught son jumps to his death, an elderly witness dies of a heart attack, while a horndog teenager unjustly takes the rap for all of this. And that’s just in the first five minutes of “The King of Havana,” an unabashedly torrid urban melodrama that will enrapture or repel viewers — or, quite possibly, both — with its upfront. up-in-your-face excess. Adapted from a regionally popular novel by Pedro Juan Gutierrez, Cuba’s leading light of so-called “dirty realism,” Spanish helmer Agusti Villaronga’s ripe, raunchy film delivers the dirt (in all senses of the word) in spades. Its sense of reality, however, is more selective, filtering the physical and moral squalor of mid-1990s Havana through the dim, sexually fixated eyes of a cocky young lothario (Mayko David Tortolo), whose downfall from an already base height forms the pic’s rambling two-hour arc.
Boosted by spunky co-star Yordanka Ariosa’s largely unanticipated Best Actress win at the San Sebastian fest, this distinctly un-regal “King” should at least match the considerable Spanish b.o. of Villaronga’s previous feature “Black Bread.” On the other hand, the pic’s rampant, arguably knowing misogyny and cultivated garbage-juice aroma — however true to its source — probably impede its arthouse potential in territories where Gutierrez’s name holds less sway. As enthusiastically as Villaronga channels the author’s trash-poetic sensibility, his somewhat baggy film bears little of the individual directorial verve that made the comparably street-level “City of God” a crossover hit.
“Life’s been hard on you… or have you been hard on life?” is a question posed to surly protagonist Reynaldo (shortened to “Rey,” Spanish for “king”) after he emerges from a spell in juvenile prison for the aforementioned uncommitted crimes. Both statements would appear to be true, though either way, “hard on” is unintentionally the operative phrase: Rarely in film has a leading character been so heavily defined by the apparent virtues of his (briefly glimpsed) member, the size and stamina of which is referred to in scene after scene. An early vignette sees Rey returning to his old home and reuniting with middle-aged former neighbor Fredesbinda (Ileana Wilson), only for her maternal attentions to escalate swiftly into graphic kitchen-floor intercourse, complete with repeated hosannas on her part to his “golden c—k.”
Any viewers put off by such ribaldry would be best adviced to leave there and then, since Rey (and, by extension, the film) is just getting started. His ensuing wanderings around crumbling Old Havana lead him to Fredesbinda’s estranged daughter Magda (Ariosa), a feisty prostitute who dabbles in black magic and proudly boasts of having had “500 c—ks inside me since I was eight.” For all this experience, Rey’s strikes her as exceptional, and the two shack up, with their tempestuous relationship forming the crooked spine of the film. It’s a pretty unequal “marriage” from the start, as Magda settles into the role of chief breadwinner while Rey, a selfish pleasure-seeker and petty criminal, spends more time hanging out with transgender hooker-next-door Yunisleidi (Hector Medina Valdes, bringing some welcome wit to proceedings).
Of course, this practically and psychologically dysfunctional domestic setup could be viewed as emblematic of the wider social ills affecting Cuba’s poverty-gutted underclasses during the country’s Special Period — the time of crushing economic depression that followed the Soviet Union’s dissolution in 1989. Villaronga’s script steers largely clear of political commentary, but portrays the devastation of the era vividly enough through his characters’ own circumstances. It’s hardly surprising that Cuban authorities refused the filmmaker permission to shoot in Havana, but Dominican Republic capital Santa Domingo makes a convincingly ramshackle stand-in, with a handy assist from Alain Ortiz’s colorfully seamy, sweat-stained production design.
As immersive as the film is on this front, however, Rey remains a dimly opaque figure to shoulder this increasingly soapy tale of woe, to which a looming El Nino storm adds an additional note of tension. In what ultimately amounts to a violently amoral morality tale, viewers certainly aren’t invited to sympathize with the dumb young stud. But he’s still a chore to be around, and Tortolo’s crudely swaggering performance — while quite credible — doesn’t do much to open him up. As Magda, then, the rangily striking Ariosa (in only her second bigscreen appearance) throws auds something of a lifeline. In a part that could have been thankless, her zestily expressive performance carries the film’s emotional stakes without resorting to stale tart-with-a-heart traits: Nobody survives these streets on goodwill alone, and her Magda retains a ruthless streak of savvy throughout.
Tech credits are all in line with the pic’s theatrically exaggerated sense of ruin, from the rotting, saturated hues of Josep M. Civit’s slick widescreen lensing to the jagged whiplash rhythms of Raul Roman’s cutting to Joan Valent’s high-impact score — played, improbably enough, by the Bratislava Symphonic Orchestra. An elegantly animated opening credit sequence announces “The King of Havana,” for all its smutty sideshows, as a film of artistic intent — though it’s perhaps out of step with Villaronga’s otherwise cranked-up gestures of brash bad taste.