After the death of Tomas Gutierrez Alea, Juan Carlos Tabio, his co-helmer on “Strawberries and Chocolate” and “Guantanamera,” has continued to explore the point at which politics and private lives intersect in contempo Cuba. The typically playful self-reflexiveness, multiple plotlines and lively perfs of bittersweet comedy “So Far Away” should combine with Tabio’s rep as Cuba’s finest living director to ensure pic settles into fests and Spanish arthouses. However, film’s concerns are too limited to broaden Tabio’s appeal.
Marilyn (Susana Perez) arrives in Cuba after 30 years in Chicago to find the aunt she was planning to visit has died. While waiting to pay her respects at the funeral, she meets Lazaro (Mijail Mulkay) — in a typical Tabio touch, he is not at the funeral at all, but is part of the queue for visas at the nearby U.S. embassy. A relationship between them develops, but he is refused his visa. When the time comes for Marilyn to return Stateside, she decides to stay in Cuba with Lazaro.
The above characters are subsequently revealed as principles in a play-within-a-play — part of a script written by Cuban Pedro (Barbaro Marin) and Mercedes (the dependable Mirtha Ibarra), lovers who are in Madrid trying to sell the project to Cuban-born, Spanish-based actor Alberto (Antonio Valero). Alberto rejects the ending as false — nobody would return to Castro’s Cuba after 30 years away. Thus begins a series of reflections on how Cuba is perceived from abroad, and of the difficulty of defining the “real” Cuba.
Alberto runs into busker Magda (Laura Ramos) playing sax on the subway, and finds himself caught up in her Cuban story. She’s been brought over to Spain on the promise of work by the nasty Miguel (Roberto Enriquez), who not only doesn’t offer her work but threatens her for repayment of the money it cost to bring her over. Alberto and Magda sleep together, and Alberto fixes her up with a job, then realizes she may be his daughter from a flirtation he has had in Cuba many years earlier.
All the shuttling back and forth between fact and fiction sounds messy on paper, especially when it turns out that both stories are workings-out of autobiographical material by Pedro and Mercedes. But careful scripting and sharp editing hold the ragbag together without sacrificing the all-inclusive, rambling feel that characterizes the helmer’s work. Tabio always takes care to filter his political points through his neatly-drawn, winsome characters — the troubled Alberto, the nostalgic Mercedes, the passionately moral Pedro.
Perfs are fine, though the mono-dimensional role of Miguel gives the talented Enriquez little to play with. The only quibbles are some occasionally repetitive dialogue and that some of the comedy, particularly after Alberto realizes that Magda could be his daughter, feels threadbare. For Spanish cinema buffs, in-jokes abound.