Judge Michael Rankins longs for the heyday of the Babalu Club.
I once asked Che why he wore his watch on his right hand. "As you write," he said, "you'll see that time is running out."
A gentle, charming slice of life in 1958 Cuba, on the eve of the nation's fall to Fidel Castro's socialist revolution, Cuban Blood (also released under the titles Dreaming of Julia and Cuba Libre) examines the effect of these historic events on a preadolescent boy coming of age in a heretofore quiet Cuban community.
Facts of the Case
More than anything in all the world, our young hero—never called by name, and identified in the film's credits simply as The Boy (Andhy Méndez)—loves going to the movies with his grandmother Beta (Diana Bracho, Y Tu Mama Tambien). When the electricity fails in the town of Holguín—right in the middle of a showing of the Doris Day thriller Julie, in which the title character struggles to keep an airliner from crash-landing—it signals not only the end of a movie, but the end of normal life in Holguín as the residents have known it. The power outage is the result of guerrilla activity by rebels loyal to the charismatic Castro, and the darkness it casts over Holguín for the next year foreshadows the depths into which the island nation is about to plummet.
Young boys understand little about politics, or guerrilla warfare, or revolution. This little lad just wants the power restored so that he can find out what happens to Julie in the movie. He can't understand why his grandfather Che (Harvey Keitel, National Treasure), the owner of the local casino and Holguín's most influential citizen, can't just direct the rebel men to turn the lights back on. The maelstrom sweeping Cuba at that moment is beyond even Che's power to control.
A childhood prank sparks an unlikely friendship between The Boy and the only American in Holguín, a beautiful blonde woman named Julia (Iben Hjejle, High Fidelity) who not only reminds The Boy of the heroine of the movie that ended too soon, but actually worked for a Hollywood studio and has met famous movie stars like John Wayne. The Boy develops an obvious crush on La Gringa, much to the consternation of his grandmother, who covers the truth that Julia is carrying on an affair with her husband Che.
As the streets of Holguín turn ever more violent with the escalating rebellion, the boy, his family, and his mysterious American friend attempt to cling to their lives and their Cuba—a Cuba that may not exist for very much longer.
The unfortunately renamed Cuban Blood—I'll spare you the rant on this point until The Rebuttal Witnesses section below—offers a touching, semiautobiographical look at the last days of pre-Marxist Cuba. The film's perspective of a child in a city far from the central action (Holguín lies at the opposite end of the island from Havana) helps keep the story from devolving into another Che!. Director Juan Gerard is far less interested in holding the Communist revolution or its aftermath under a microscope than in showing, in simply drawn terms, how the changes in Cuba during the late 1950s altered the lives of the country's average citizens.
It's clear from the outset that the unnamed boy at the center of the narrative is an avatar for the director himself. Gerard's nostalgia for his childhood homeland reverberates in every lovingly captured scene, in every colorful character, and in every reminiscence within the narration. (Delivered with appropriate warmth and gravitas by actor Tony Plana, in a manner that reminded me of Daniel Stern on The Wonder Years.) In the pivotal role, Andhy Méndez exudes a natural childlike innocence and awkwardness, yet coupled with a curious intelligence that allows us to believe he will eventually grow into a man who could create a film such as this. Méndez never mugs or plays to the camera—if anything, he's almost too real a youngster for the power of the film around him. If his line readings sound a bit mannered at times, it's forgivable in the context of a fresh, authentic overall performance.
The screenplay, cowritten by director Gerard and Letvia Arza-Goderich, does a fine job of keeping the plot focused on Holguin and its residents, rather than permitting it to expand into something bigger than it needs to be. Due perhaps to the first-time director feeling his way, the story doesn't always take as direct a path as one might hope. Most of the subplots, such as the affair between Che and Julia, and the skullduggery engaged in by the local rebel leader played by Gael Garcia Bernal (The Motorcycle Diaries)—merely distract from the thread we care most about: the boy, his family, and his budding crush on his older American friend. The distractions, however, are minor when compared with the genuine delights of this glimpse into another culture.
Among the adult actors, Iben Hjejle is the standout in a marvelously textured cast. Hjejle manages to tread the delicate line of extending friendship to her juvenile companion—and eagerly accepting his friendship in return—without ever suggesting anything indecent or predatory. In fact, there's a hilarious scene in which Julia teaches The Boy to slow-dance, and his maturing young body responds by…well…doing what young boys' bodies do when pressed close against those of attractive women. Both characters disengage from this potentially embarrassing situation gracefully, with their dignity intact, and our reaction is to laugh with them rather than to feel the need to shower.
Diana Bracho is also memorable as The Boy's doting grandmother, who feels herself losing both the important men in her life to the same woman. The rest of the cast, most of their names and faces unfamiliar to Stateside audiences, teems with sparkling little jewels of character acting. Even the Cuban-born American actor Georg Stanford Brown adds several winning moments as a homeless man who always seems to be wherever the action is. The only false notes are sounded by Harvey Keitel, who looks bored to the point of catatonia, and basically gives a performance that could have been pasted together from clips from other films in which he's appeared. Fortunately, Keitel's screen time is far more limited than the keep case graphics and copy would lead one to believe.
Lensed in the Dominican Republic (Gerard was denied authorization to film in Cuba), Cuban Blood features mellow, naturalistic cinematography by Kramer Morganthau (The Man From Elysian Fields). The director and DP work smoothly together to create a nostalgic, period-appropriate feel that avoids sentimental excess and unnecessary flash and dash. The story is the message here, and the camera never gets in its way. Gerard also makes sparing, effective use of classic film clips representing the young hero's cinematic fantasy life—comparisons to such films as Cinema Paradiso are inevitable, but Gerard's approach fits perfectly in the context of his own personal vision.
Velocity Home Entertainment brings Cuban Blood to DVD in a no-frills package offering adequate picture (a soft, slightly grainy anamorphic transfer) and sound (good balance, discernable dialogue, minimal use of stereo effect), and little else. The film's theatrical trailer and a trio of additional previews (for Beeper, Southern Justice, and I Love Your Work complete the package. I have to believe that for a film this close to the director's heart, a commentary would have been eagerly contributed, and most welcome.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Two things frustrate me in today's entertainment marketing environment: (1) variant covers on comic books, and (2) manufactured DVD-specific movie titles. The disc under consideration in this review is a striking example of the latter offense. Dreaming Of Julia is a splendidly suitable title for this motion picture. It makes sense, it evokes the critical element of the plot, and it conveys the sense of nostalgia that is essential to this film. Cuban Blood, on the other hand, sounds like a Miami version of The Godfather. It says nothing (at least, noting accurate) about the movie, and instead promotes it as something it is not.
The other problem with this kind of legerdemain is that is confuses potential buyers. If you'd heard or read about this terrific film called Dreaming Of Julia that toured the film festival circuit, and you wanted to see it on DVD, you certainly wouldn't go into your local video outlet and ask for a copy of Cuban Blood. You might search the shelves—or even online—in vain for a DVD of Dreaming Of Julia, only to resign yourself to the notion that no such animal existed. Thus, a sale lost. Why would a company work so hard to keep paying customers from finding their product?
I just don't get it.
If you bypassed Cuban Blood at your local House of DVD because the title and packaging led you to believe it was rife with violent crime or political propaganda, take another look. You'll find a sweet, soulful, winsomely nostalgic family drama with plenty of lighter moments. You'll also experience a time and place that you've probably never seen before, and that will assuredly never again exist.
The film and its makers are found not guilty. The marketing whiz who decided to change the name of the movie is sentenced to write bildungsroman on the blackboard 1,958 times. Court is in recess.
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