As the first American feature film to shoot entirely in Cuba since 1959, Ben Chace’s “Sin Alas (Without Wings)” is understandably fascinated by the vortices of history, the lingering scars of revolutionary politics, and the eternal persistence of memory. Yet the film succeeds largely by treating these massive issues as background themes for its low-key, simple, personal story of lost love. Inventively shot on Super 16, with greater emphasis on evocative images than on narrative propulsion, “Sin Alas” is occasionally handicapped by its production limitations (for one, Chace couldn’t even watch his footage until he returned to the U.S. after shooting), but the film is nonetheless a sensual, brainy, immersive experience that could invite plenty of festival love and attention for its first-time writer-director.
The basic plot outline of “Sin Alas” is simple: 70-year-old Luis (Carlos Padron) opens the daily newspaper to discover that Isabela Munoz (Yulislievis Rodriguez), the ballerina with whom he had a brief but transformative affair in 1967, has died. The news sends him into a ruminative trance, as he reflects on his life and tries to reconnect the fragments of memory that have been suddenly stirred up in his head. Meanwhile, his next-door neighbors are embroiled in an ongoing domestic quarrel, which contains faint echoes from his own romantic past.
Luis becomes obsessed with his vague recollection of a song melody he associates with the romance, which took place back when he was a dashing young journalist interviewing the dancer for a feature, and she was the wife of an imposing party official. (Lieter Ledesma plays the younger Luis in gauzy, glammed-up ‘60s flashbacks, which themselves sometimes give way to even hazier black-and-white vignettes of Luis’ privileged childhood on a sugar plantation.) This leads to a delightful, seemingly unscripted sequence in which Luis and his garrulous old friend Ovilio (cast standout Mario Limonta) roam the streets of Havana with a guitar, soliciting help from passersby to identify the music.
The scene is one of many that choreographs the ebb and flow of modern Cuban life with relaxed, offhand precision. The city of Havana, with its salty air of elegant depredation, makes for an endlessly revealing setting, and cinematographer Sean Price Williams shoots it much like he did New York in the Safdie brothers’ “Heaven Knows What,” full of deft, alert camera movement and tight closeups that can suddenly give way to expansive cityscapes and labyrinthine architecture. Like the stoical Luis, the film itself is reluctant to raise its voice with ostentatious narrative flourishes or melodrama, but this is hardly a quiet or somber work, filled with the eruptions of incidental music and bustling street scenes.
At times this emphasis on environment and mood over narrative can leave the viewer a bit confused — we never learn much at all about Luis’ life from the late ‘60s to the present day, for example, and one intense sequence of a rooftop Santeria ritual doesn’t seem to have any obvious connection to the rest of Luis’ journey. But for such a young director, Chace is generally well attuned to the more deliberate emotional pace of old age.
The specters of history are always present in the air here, from the Fidel Castro posters that still adorn modern streetcorners to the philistinism of the party officials we see in flashbacks. There’s also a low undertow of the potentially huge changes in store for the island, as Luis talks of getting his apartment’s paperwork in order in case some returning Miami millionaire might want to buy it. But never are these themes tackled with a heavy hand. As Luis notes with a shrug when asked why he never tried emigrating to the U.S., “I just wanted to see where all this was headed.” For audiences who take a similar view, “Sin Alas” offers plenty to see.