Taking after the explorations of a city through episodic meanderings such as Paris, je t’aime, 7 Days In Havana does exactly what it says on the tin when exploring its subject. Though the seven stories are mixed bag of styles and quality, not adding up to a satisfying whole, it’s when the film sporadically decides to detour from narrative and reveal the Cuban capital in a naturalistic light that breathes the most life into this picture. Seven directors including Gaspar Noe and Benicio Del Toro each take on a segment, this being Del Toro’s second foray into Cuban culture after his take on Che Guevara in Steven Soderbergh’s marvelous Che (2008/9).
Monday sees young Teddy – a young American who dreams of breaking into acting – he arrives in Cuba for a film festival but his passion for film and attendance of the festival isn’t shown. What we get is a cliched adventure into the Cuban nightlife that could have been a forgotten reel from The Inbetweeners movie; misunderstandings with transvestites, alcohol abuse and failed attempts to impress women (and prostitutes) dominate the story. These unsavoury laughs are expected and worn out but could have benefitted from the time to let us warm to Teddy, he’s not an unlikable fella by all means but his antics fall flat due to lack of character. When the camera wonders around the clubs and observes the dancing and the drinking while the live band plays you get a genuine sense of Cuban nightlife and the importance of music within the culture.
Tuesday follows troubled Russian director Emir Kusturica of Black Cat, White Cat (1998) fame starring as himself. Emir is in Cuba to collect an award for his contribution to cinema, collecting, it can only be assumed from the same festival that Teddy will also attend. Emir is drowned in alcohol after an all night bender and his driver worried sick after trying desperately to locate the director finds him just in time to get him cleaned up for the ceremony. At one point the camera follows Emir from the depths of an underground bar to the sun lit streets, in an impressive long take he’s followed into his car and upon arrival through the hotel and out towards the sea. The shot is filled with life and little moments of the every day just like the extensive camera work of Soy Cuba (1964).
As the film develops the stories become increasingly unexpected with each tonally at odds with the last. There is the melodramatics of a talented couple, the woman a singer, the man a baseball player. Daniel Bruhl plays the agent from a music label ready to sign the powerful singer though she’s torn between her US destined career and her bitter partner whose own career has plummeted. Then there’s the surreally bizarre wonderings of a political tourist in a segment directed by and starring Elia Suleiman. The comedic idiosyncrasies of the Israeli filmmaker bringing a strangely humorous quirk to the silent proceedings. If Suleiman’s silent story wasn’t offbeat enough, Gaspar Noe’s (Irreversible, Enter the Void) unsettling vision of parents performing tribalistic rituals on their homosexual daughter takes the film to its darkest depths.
Closing the film is the strongest episode called ‘The Fountain’ which follows an elderly woman convinced she’s received command form the virgin Mary to build a fountain in honour of God. The woman seeks the help of any willing neighbours and what at first seems to be a story about the absurdity of religious mysticism soon becomes a life affirming tale of neighbourly bonding. With laughs along the way, when the party begins to celebrate the fountain, whether the woman rightfully heard commands from God or not doesn’t matter as the celebration of life and the joyous faces of all involved made the endeavour worth it.
These stories are often misguided with most introducing multiple characters without the slightest of backstory; we’re flung headfirst into the drama only given much needed info through contrived dialogue and heightened melodrama that sits awkwardly as we’ve been denied the chance to invest in the situations. Apart from The Fountain’s final chapter the others don’t have any lasting effect, in fact 7 Days In Havana works best when it abandons its forced drama and documents the natural surroundings of its beautiful setting. This reviewer has been to Cuba and spent time in Havana, the cultures’ relationship with music is so closely knit you can’t go out for a a drink or a meal without live music permeating your surroundings in the most pleasant sense. Though sporadic, the moments that showcase the energetic yet serene atmosphere of the country are sublime and will surely entice many to experience Cuba. On that level 7 Days In Havana succeeds and would have been nice to have more insights and details from the films’s exquisite locales, unfortunately it focusses too heavily on its forced and underwhelming drama that takes away from the true star of the picture.
7 Days in Havana is in cinemas 6th July 2012