A challengingly intense fable about the imagination as escape, “Madrigal” — as Cuban auteur Fernando Perez winsomely admits in his accompanying notes — is the kind of earnest, elliptical fare that is too easily filed under “pretentious.” However, the sureness of touch, rich atmospherics and immense tech craft of this hyper-stylized love story more than compensate for its occasional art-school manner. Viewers looking for a duplicate of Perez’s comparatively direct previous item “Havana Suite” may be frustrated by the multiple abstraction of this more ideas-driven piece, but “Madrigal” still looks set to perform at fests.
Good-looking but insecure Javier (Carlos Enrique Almirante) is a wannabe writer and actor in a theater group in which g.f. Eva (Carla Sanchez) and Angel (Perez stalwart Luis Alberto Garcia) also perform. One night, they are playing to a single audience member, overweight teen Luisita (Liety Chaviano), who stands up mid-act and leaves, a move which fascinates Javier.
He tracks the God-fearing, morgue-working romantic Luisita down to her apartment, where the two of them indulge in the first of several leisurely conversations. Javier reports back to Eva, who half-jokingly suggests that he should seduce and then poison Luisita, so they can have her apartment: the grim reality of contempo Cuban life is never confronted head on, but as here is referred to obliquely throughout. Instead, Javier finds himself curiously drawn to the ugly duckling Luisita, and more so when he sees Angel goosing Eva (her explanation is that since private property is forbidden in Cuba, her rear is fair game).
Javier works on a story and starts behaving dangerously, particularly after Eva leaves him: Luisita dreams of buying a harp. The plot features much implausibility, but naturalism isn’t what we’re after.
The last 20 minutes are effectively a relatively action-packed separate movie — a striking, erotic vision of a Havana in 2020 in which bodily pleasures are the only ones left and which plays some sharp structural games with what’s gone on before. This is the story Javier has been writing. We are left with the (tiresomely threadbare) doubt about which part of pic is “real,” which adds to pic’s slightly stifling airlessness.
The alert and extremely self-conscious Perez seems concerned to stay away from cliched cinematic representations of “exotic” Havana, and what we get instead is a city of cramped interiors with peeling walls, and streets full of thick, curling smoke, and where it’s continually pouring down and, yet, curiously, nobody carries umbrellas. It’s all superbly rendered by lenser Raul Perez Ureta, laying on the color.
Dialogue, particularly during the Javier/Luisita exchanges, sometimes has the air of ritual; losing count of the times the sentiment “not everything’s what it seems” is spoken. This has the knock-on effect of locating the two main characters in a no-man’s land between the real and the symbolic. Almirante does his best, but feels unrooted; Luisita, marked for tragedy, is a far more engaging figure.
Garcia has screen presence to burn, while Spanish thesp Sanchez is a face to watch. Music is often sonorous droning, with not a single snatch of salsa to be heard.
Pic is dedicated to Rene Clair and features a powerful scene that gives us the ending of “The Grand Maneuver” as Clair foresaw it in 1955 but which his producers forbade him from including.