There are several very mildly cautionary notes sounded in Sergio Navarretta’s “The Cuban,” a pleasant, plangent hybrid of culture-clash drama, odd-couple formula and late-life Bucket List bromide. There’s the gentle exhortation not to follow someone else’s dream at the expense of your own. There’s a subtle finger-wag at ageism, at the assumption that because someone is elderly or infirm they have nothing left to give the world. And there’s a whole lot about the healing power of music. But the real learning here ought to be that if you cast two such charismatic performers as Louis Gossett Jr. and Shohreh Aghdashloo in your movie, it would be better to clear all the Life Lesson clutter away and just let them get on with it.
Gossett plays Luis Garcia, a heavily medicated Alzheimer’s patient in a care home where he spends most of his time staring into the middle distance in his room — institutionally tidy except for a poster of Cuban singer Benny Moré on the wall. Perky pre-med student Mina (Ana Golja), who immigrated from Afghanistan as a child, has just taken a job in the home, where her aunt Bano (Aghdashloo), herself a Kabul émigré, is an administrator. Mina is assigned to Garcia as a carer, and, against the instructions of the briskly impersonal Nurse Baker (Lauren Holly), immediately makes him her mission.
Recognizing the poster — her father was a fan of Cuban jazz — and noticing how Luis responds when she sings (she nurses dormant ambitions as a chanteuse; perhaps her encounter with Luis will somehow give her the courage to rekindle them?), she brings in some records and a portable player. The transformation is immediate, with Luis sometimes slipping into color-saturated reveries about his time back in Cuba as a well-known guitarist, and a woman named Elena whom he loved. But mostly he connects with Mina while the music plays, and while he eats the Cuban food she’s painstakingly prepared and smuggled in. They try to gradually piece together his fragmented memories.
As rigorously formulaic as the story is, Gossett is simply wonderful as Luis, both in the character’s tragic vagueness and in his borderline miraculous transfiguration as the music creeps in, animating his eyes, his face, his whole frame. And though sadly they don’t interact enough, Aghdashloo is just as watchable as Bano, who carries the majority of the film’s subthemes about the immigrant experience and the challenges of being a modern Muslim woman on her elegant shoulders and in her marvelously worldly, cracked catnip voice.
But Navarretta, working from a screenplay by Alessandra Piccione, spends too much time away from these two veterans and with the do-gooder younger generation: the almost aggravatingly purehearted Mina, her similarly squeaky-clean new boyfriend Kris (Giacomo Gianotti) — a sex scene between the two, timidly tasteful though it is, feels oddly jarring — and her cousin Zahra (Shiva Negar) who is set up, in the most simplistic terms, as a contrast to Mina in terms of her Muslim faith. Without the gravitas of the older castmembers, and with little real sense of the wider world Mina occupies or why her interactions with Kris feels so weirdly “Dawson’s Creek”-y, the film loses its stakes. Even the potentially fertile Afghan/Cuban cultural crossover is barely explored: In “The Cuban,” heritage is mostly decoration and celebration, gaily demonstrated in the clothes we wear, the songs we sing and the food we eat, but never actually tied to anything deeper, angstier or more fundamental to our identities.
DP Celiana Cárdenas’ photography is pleasingly clean-edged and subtle for the most part, giving an old-fashioned tale its touch of modernity. Her portraiture of Gossett is especially rich, often casting half his face in shadow, or going in close on a detail: the papery skin of his hands hanging limp on his lap, or a flicker of recognition in his eye leading to a beatific, dawn-breaking smile. The muted, dusky palette feels so appropriate for the film’s more poignant undercurrents, in fact, that the artificially bright flashbacks/daydream sequences seem all the more costumey by contrast.
Mostly it’s left to jazz composer Hilario Durán’s versatile music to smooth out those awkward transitions and to give the film whatever slyly sashaying rhythm it has. It’s perhaps not quite as transformative as Luis seems to find it, but Durán’s compositions do straddle the story’s emotional spectrum well, as evidenced early on when after the spicy salsa beats of the colorful opening titles, it segues into melancholic jazz piano as we move around the care home, observing the residents and staff in little sketches of pathos. But perhaps there’s no better indication of where the film’s sincere, sentimental heart lies than that its centerpiece “live” performances are “Quizás Quizás Quizás” and “Guantanamera,” repeatedly: “The Cuban” is just a little too fond of the familiar.