(German and English dialogue)
Interested in the same sort of complex human interplay as auteurs Eric Rohmer and Rudolf Thome, shorts vet Stephan Wagner makes an impressive feature debut with “Smoking Cuban Style.” Story centers on two friends who open a Vienna antique store and discover more than they ever wanted to know about each other, themselves and the cruel world. Moody item, shot through with flashes of dry wit , might be too downbeat for general consumption, but depth of story and resolutely non-stylish style will ensure pic’s popularity at fests and, with nurturing and patience, in special situations and ancillary markets.
Tired of strong-arming with excitable partner Erwin (Wolfgang S. Zechmayer) for local boss Dragan (Seymour Cassel), Bernd (Thomas Morris) decides to go into business with his pal Paul (Simon Licht), who has a line on an antique store being sold by the elderly Waranovsky (Leon Askin).
Pooling money borrowed from Dragan with funds cadged from the family of Paul’s g.f., Eva (Eva-Marie Straka), the two set up shop and seem content for a while. Yet the timing of Paul’s increasingly passionate affair with Lisa (Tatjana Alexander) threatens his relationship with Eva — and, by extension, his loan.
At the same time, Bernd’s drug trafficking via antique shipments serves not only to attract the unwanted attention of the vicious Erwin, but puts Paul in a comic spot when an auto accident reveals to some dimwitted rural cops a stash of coke in the shape of a statue.
Things come to a head when Dragan asks Bernd to kill Erwin and when Paul’s decision about his two lovers, as well as his future, is decided for him.
Wagner relishes the little things that contribute to mood and character, such as the poster for Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s “Katzelmacher,” in front of which Paul and Lisa kiss; the odd rapport shared by Bernd and Dragan (who speak to each other in German and English, respectively, although each seems to fully understand the other) and the unexpected eloquence of the small-town constabulary.
Paul’s story gets more screen time than Bernd’s, yet both Licht and Morris, who’ve worked with Wagner in his previous short dramas, make an initially unlikely friendship seem both logical and comfortable.
Tech credits are fine, although B&W lensing is inexplicably muddy. Title refers to tricky method of keeping cigarette ash on the filter (done in “solidarity with Cuba,” says Paul), a rich, apt metaphor for the balancing acts of these average yet complicated lives.