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A leisurely, somewhat hazy travelogue compared to the piercing political indictments of his acclaimed prior “We Come as Friends” and Oscar-nominated “Darwin’s Nightmare,” Austrian documentarian Hubert Sauper’s new “Epicentro” looks at Cuba on the brink of colossal transition, as the old Communist system is in its apparent death throes, and free-market capitalism waits in the wings. It’s a fascinating moment for cultural stock-taking. Yet despite the filmmaker’s evident fondness for the people and nation, this impressionistic feature feels frustratingly obtuse, unfocused and unstructured. Nonetheless, it won the World Documentary jury prize at Sundance, which along with Sauper’s reputation should ensure a fair degree of future exposure.

“Epicentro” does start out very well, with Sauper’s own musing, philosophical narration informing us of Cuba’s distinction as “the place where the New World was discovered” and the American flag was first planted overseas — followed by, among other locations, the moon. His frequent theme of colonialism’s ongoing impact is returned to in a brief recap of Spanish, then U.S. occupation before the revolution, depicted via clever use of archival materials both fictive and not. The early “fake news” twisting of the U.S.S. Maine’s almost certainly accidental, explosion-caused sinking in 1898 Havana Harbor into an excuse for the Spanish-American War (and subsequent U.S. seizure of the island’s control) remains a key official argument against imperialism in Cuban history books, public education and propaganda.

We meet a local cartoonist who’d depicted those events in animated form for schoolchildren, and hear from schoolchildren themselves. They may be “indoctrinated” by the standards of many American conservatives, but are nonetheless strikingly articulate and informed for their age. Much of “Epicentro” is taken up by Sauper hanging out with various grade-schoolers he dubs “Young Prophets,” in particular one bright, extroverted girl who wants to be an actress. As the documentary gradually drifts away from any historical or political overview toward anecdotal encounters with current Havana residents, his delight in these kids grows less infectious. Yes, they’re cute and likable. But eventually such scenes become not much more pointed than any grandpa’s home video of precocious wee ones showing off for the camera.

There are still some striking sequences, as when Sauper manages to sneak himself and two “Prophets” into a luxury hotel whose extravagant exclusivity looks obscene amid the pervasive poverty and decaying infrastructure outside. Several citizens have pithy things to say about President Trump, who’s reversed the Obama administration’s policy thaw toward Cuba, which no other nation continues to embargo. This has only worsened life for Cubans who’ve already suffered badly since the demise of the U.S.S.R., its primary trade partner and source of aid. The resulting severe deprivation is evident in a society running on fumes, forced to pander to tourist dollars that locals simultaneously fear will inevitably one day dominate the nation whole, benefiting foreign investors far more than natives. (A clip from Mikhail Kalatozov’s astounding 1964 Soviet co-production “I Am Cuba” illustrates the capitalist excesses of the late Batista era, which history may well be doomed to repeat itself.)

There isn’t a lot of commentary here on Castro’s Communist Cuba, or even whether its alleged socialist “utopia” could be called a success on any level save that of relative longevity. Instead, the gist here is a vague general pulse-taking of a transitional period, when the creaking old system is in final stages of post-Fidel collapse, and change is expected but not entirely welcome. Passers-by from streetwalkers to mechanics seem wary of simply being passed on to a new era of external exploiters.

Yet they remain oddly, if ruefully, cheerful even in their cynicism. Many proudly reference the beauty of Cuba and its people, despite all obstacles. We might share their sentiments more enthusiastically if the movie left Havana a bit, or if even the “ruin porn” of this dilapidated urban landscape were better photographed than the director’s own rather ugly digital camerawork allows.

As intriguing as a major filmmaker’s take on this particular national epoch is at first, “Epicentro” lacks any thesis, eventually degenerating into a loose series of insider-ish yet still touristic vignettes. Some are charming, some incisive, others simply testify to his love of cinema itself. (Actress Oona Castilla Chaplin is seen filming a scene here, singing a couple songs, and showing children footage of grandfather Charlie in “The Great Dictator.”) But too much feels random and meandering, turning the film more ponderous as it goes along. Just what Sauper intends with this affectionate but muddy, knee-deep wade into an embattled culture is further clouded by the incongruous soundtracking of several English-language alt-rock songs of the shoegazer type.

‘Epicentro’: Film Review

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival, Jan. 29, 2020. Running time: 108 MIN.

  • Production: (Documentary – Austria-France) A Groupe Deux, KGP Filmproduktion, Little Magnet Films presentation, in association with Manon 8, Les Films du Losange, Wild Bunch, Cine Plus, Impact Partners, Just Films. (Int'l sales: Wild Bunch, Paris.) Producers: Martin Marquet, Daniel Marquet, Gabriele Kranzelbinder, Paolo Calamita. Executive producers: Dan Cogan, Michael Donaldson.
  • Crew: Director, writer: Hubert Sauper, inspired by the book “Energie und Utopie” by Johannes Schmidl. Camera: Sauper. Editors: Yves Deschamps, Sauper. Music: Zsusanna Varkonyi, Maximilian “Twig” Turnbull.
  • With: Leonelis Arango Salas, Annielys Pelladito Zaldivar, Yorlenis David de la Cruz Leyva, Oona Castilla Chaplin , Clarita Sanchez, Feña LeChuck, Juan Padron, Felix Beaton, Menale Kaza, Hans Helmut Ludwig, Deneli Beatriz de la Cruz. (Spanish, English dialogue)
  • Music By: