A bittersweet fairytale of love and loss set in a stylized Cuba inhabited by virgins, madames and sailors, “Virgin Rose” fuses politics and romance into a dexterous, charming but somewhat weightless whole. Second Cuba-themed film by vet director Manuel Gutierrez Aragon is set in the ’50s but aims at a timelessness that sometimes looks behind the times. With actor Jorge Perugorria brilliantly squeezing the last drop out of a peach of a role, and a photogenic debut by teen Ana de Armas, this intelligent item should still blossom at fests, with limited offshore appearances.
A striking mix of cold blood and warm smile, Simon (Perugorria) earns a decent living by shipping wannabe exiles from Cuba to the U.S. He tells them he’ll carry them aboard his battered old ferry to freedom Stateside, then puts them ashore on an uninhabited islet. While being chased down by a U.S. police boat, a crewmember threatens to shoot Simon, but Andres (Alex Gonzalez) steps in to save him. Theme of illegal immigration is then dropped as the pic becomes a character study of Simon.
Simon takes Andres back to the brothel of his lover, the Madame (Broselianda Hernandez), to recover. The house is full of nubile women being prepared by the Madame to make wives for wealthy local gents, and the arrival of the beautifully sculpted Andres makes its impact immediately, particularly on the spoiled and ambitious 16-year-old Marie (de Armas), who is desperate to leave Cuba and has already caught Simon’s eye.
Perugorria was made for the role of menacing charmer, and he does terrific work here as a quietly tortured man whose insecurities, concealed behind flashing-eyed bonhomie, are brought to the surface by his younger, sexier friend and rival. De Armas, doing a devilish-eyed Lolita turn, is flat in early scenes and only finds her feet later on. Gonzalez lacks intensity, and as a result, the crucial Marie-Andres relationship never sparks.
The sumptuous interiors of the brothel and the buzzing streets of Havana are sensually rendered by d.p. Alfredo Mayo, more interested in creating a Cuba of the mind than anything realistic, but well-matched to the fairytale air. Jose Salcedo’s editing has a tendency to linger obviously and long over certain details. Songs, from the likes of Benny More, are wonderfully evocative of the era: Film’s Spanish title is a reference to one of them.