A wide-ranging hybrid of nostalgic comedy, drama and thriller, “Cuba Libre,” which looks back at pre-Communist 1958 Cuba through the eyes of an inquisitive, movie-loving boy, is unable to make a whole of its various parts. Tyro helmer Juan Gerard attempts to recall classical Hollywood movies in a film exceedingly indebted to “Cinema Paradiso” in its calculated stab at linking movie love, budding passions and youthful adventure. With a cast topped by Harvey Keitel and Iben Hjejle, English-lingo pic has a slight chance in North American spots, but oddity of language will make it a tough sell in Latin America.
To Gerard’s credit, he dips deep into semi-obscure ’50s cinema for his opener, as a boy (Andhy Mendez, playing the central character only identified in credits as “The Boy”) watches Andrew L. Stone’s Doris Day vehicle, “Julie” (billed here as “Julia”), with his grandmother Beta (Diana Bracho) in the only moviehouse in the provincial town of Holguin. Thanks to the ongoing war, the lights go out before the movie’s over. For the next month, the town will be sunk into darkness after sunset — with the romantic glow of candles filling every night scene.
This stir of politics and boyhood dreams run throughout “Cuba Libre,” but Gerard tends to be unsure how to convey all of this on screen. A running narration (by Tony Plana, sounding unfortunately too much like Juan Valdez pitching coffee) recited by the boy as an adult is so grating in its aim to please that it nearly sinks the narrative before it has a chance to start.
Still, the boy’s fascination with his casino-owning bigshot grandfather Che (Keitel) gives the right air of romance and intrigue to ease viewers into the child’s perspective on events. Because his father must go into exile in Miami, the boy is sent to live with Che and Beta. Local characters abound, providing pic with numerous episodic strands and making it resemble far too many other coming-of-age tales. There’s eccentric and inventive Armin (Gabino Diego, who comes up with a car-powered portable cinema); nervous police chief Capt. Rosado (Daniel Lugo), worried about Fidel’s oncoming troops; Ricky (Gael Garcia Bernal, in a nearly silent role), who ends up being a rebel supporter; the boy’s arch nemesis Jose Carlos (Robert Fernandez); and the town’s sole American, Julia (Hjejle), a Hollywood industry ex-pat.
So much is stuffed into “Cuba Libre,” in fact, that a central thread is never found, other than the general sense of a growing boy’s developing awareness of the changing world around him. This leads to some odd filmmaking choices, as scenes drift from lovely nighttime reveries at Julia’s and a beautiful passage during the annual Carnival, to maniacally-edited thriller-like sequences that feel like they’re out of a different movie.
And as with many films told from the p.o.v. of a single character, that view is too easily violated by scenes which the character — in this case, the boy — couldn’t possibly have witnessed, such as critically dramatic exchanges between Julia and Che, whose affair is revealed late in the film.
Moreover, the nature of Gerard’s and Letvia Arza-Goderich’s novelistic, episodic script tends to drain emotional impact, which “Cuba Libre” tries to make up for in the boy’s teary send-off at the finish after Fidel has won the day.
Keitel typically able to play charming with a hint of threat underneath, makes Che a mysterious figure throughout, even though his Spanish accent is hit-and-miss. While he has a face that’s easy to love, Mendez is a child actor with limits that become clear with each succeeding reel. As a sort of friendly symbol for the allures of womanhood, Hjejle is likable enough, but lacks the magic touch. Support is tilted toward broad portrayals, while Bernal appears underused.
Dominican Republic locales effectively stand in for Cuba, and optical wipes and irises playfully suggest pic’s cineaste underpinnings. Edesio Alejandro’s music drowns the movie in gooey sentiment.