A lyrical, meticulously-crafted and unexpectedly melancholy homage to the battered but resilient inhabitants of a battered but resilient city, Fernando Perez’s “Suite Habana” fuses fiction and documentary, making its point with poetic evocation. The surprisingly watchable delight strikes universal chords, and offshore sales have been brisk even beyond Hispanic territories. Shunning the sun ‘n’ salsa cliches of La Isla and managing to slip past Cuban censors, pic has whipped up a B.O. and critical storm at home. Though unlikely to cause a similar fuss offshore, “Suite” is a valuable addition to Cuba’s cinematic canon and looks assured of multiple fest screenings.
Practically dialogue-free, pic shuttles dexterously among multiple characters over a 24-hour period. All have been lensed going about their everyday business, but each has been distilled into a mini-narrative. Among the characters are Francisquito, a 10-year-old boy with Down’s Syndrome; his father, Francisco, an architect turned builder; Francisquito’s grandparents, Norma and Waldo, the latter a retired professor of Marxism; Ivan, a hospital worker and would-be actor; and Raquel, a perfume factory worker.
There’s also Jorge Luis, who’s decided to go and live with a Cuban-American woman in Miami; his brother, Juan Carlos, a doctor who dresses up as a clown for children’s parties; Ernesto, a dancer who has to support his family; Heriberto, a railroad repair man who plays sax; and Amanda, an elderly woman who sells peanuts in the street. Inevitably, the trawl through their characters is also a trawl through a wide array of emotions.
Everything is presented through succinct scenes, often no more than a few seconds long, which add up to a elliptical narrative of the characters’ days. Very little out of the ordinary happens but fine editing means the viewer is able to fill the gaps in each story and end up feeling familiar with, and affectionate toward, the characters and their concerns.
Until the final scenes, where a single-sentence description of each character and a description of what they dream for are flashed up on screen, everything is shown and nothing is told.
Lensing is crucial. Much time is dedicated to gestures — a yawn, feet pedaling, stroking a lizard, swallowing — all of which show that a human life is largely made up of trivial seeming details. Against this, there’s the perpetual hustle and bustle of the street scenes, which reveal the fragility of people against the machinery and cityscapes they’ve created.
Havana’s natural rhythms govern pic’s moods: the hectic morning, followed by the temporary peace and quiet of lunch, the languid, sunny afternoon, and the return home for evening preparations. However different these lives are, they’re bound together by the patterns of the day.
There is little direct reference to Castro’s presidency but it is always there, whether as an organized, flag-waving march on the TV, a yellowing Che Guevara poster on a wall, or the images of the decaying city itself.
Music is either synthesized, at times sounding not unlike Angelo Badalamenti, or uses a simple and evocative melody on a piano. Sound is vital, whether viewers are listening to a spoon clinking in a coffee cup or to the rumble of city traffic. Pic’s title is taken from a brief extract from a radio program.