The canon of Cuban filmmaking is relatively sparse: in short, there’s the work of Enrique Pineda Barnet (he made 1989’s The Beauty of the Alhambra and later founded the Cuban Institute of Arts and Film Industry); damning documentaries, mostly made by exiles (like the award-winning Improper Conduct, in which Cuba’s 1980s-era concentration camps filled with homosexuals, religious nonconformists and other dissidents were exposed); and a few art-house films that garnered festival attention, such as 1996’s Bitter Sugar and 1995’s Strawberry & Chocolate. So simply getting to see Viva Cuba, the latest film by Juan Carlos Cremata Malberti, who received praise for writing, directing and editing 2001’s black-and-white Nada, feels like a rare privilege.
As an added bonus, the film’s not bad. This quirky coming-of-age tale focuses on Jorgito and Malu, two pre-teens from distinctly different upbringings. Jorgito is an imaginative boy full of machismo, raised by a poor but proud socialist family. Malu is a tough-minded tomboy from a bourgeois upbringing; her single mother feels no allegiance to Cuba and is considering a move so she can join her wealthy boyfriend, presumably in the United States. That’s a problem, considering the fact that Malu and Jorgito are best friends, if not victims of young love. So when Malu’s mom starts to enact her plan to uproot the family, the two friends devise their own strategy to thwart her: an ambitious, if not entirely improbable, cross-country adventure.
What ensues is a sweeping look at the Cuban countryside and a veiled commentary on a nation at a crossroads. Since Viva Cuba sees its world through the eyes of carefree children—Malu still plays with dolls and Jorgito pretends he’s part of the Cuban army—the whole film comes across as nothing more than a joyride. But the subtle messages are there: Beyond Havana, where both children attend a strict school (they chant “We are pioneers for communism!” every morning), we’re treated to beautiful vistas and beaches, communities rich in tradition but struggling for basic necessities, and a culture largely unchanged since the American embargo hit in 1962. As a guided tour it feels authentic; as a statement, it’s restrained.
For all Viva Cuba’s charms, however, it’s not without oddities. The kids’ journey includes vivid nightmares (a truly bizarre scene involves an African warrior surrounded by animated creatures) and cross-dressing. Malberti does his best to keep the focus on the children, and may in fact be aiming this film at a more familial audience, so silliness reigns. And that’s okay. Just the opportunity to see his homeland through a mostly apolitical lens is refreshing, and the fact that the story holds a viewer’s attention is an extra. It’s not nearly as poignant as Nada, but what it lacks in profundity, it makes up for in fun.
Viva Cuba screens in the Missoula Public Library’s large meeting room as part of World Wide Cinema on Friday, July 13, at 7 PM. Free.