If a favourite feature film director makes a short, one could be disappointed watching it for the first time - I'm sure many people will agree with me on that. Jean-Luc Godard, Michelangelo Antonioni, and Nicolas Roeg have all disappointed me at some point, only for me to change my opinion after repeat viewings. I guess it is because we've got so accustomed to the pace, depth, and tone in their feature films, and expect a similar level of intensity in whatever they do, in effect, expecting to see something a full-length film would convey in a short film. I was half expecting to be disappointed this time too, and nearly was - before I discovered some of the other directors whose work I've never had a chance to see before, and also got to watch my favourite directors for a second time.
Seven directors were asked to come up with their own vision of life in a day in the Cuban capital - six of them are renowned, one of the six has hired another renowned director to star in his film, one of the six is a Cuban, and the seventh director I've only known so far as an actor. Interestingly many seem to have collaborated at some level in putting together their material, weaving in common characteristics. The most obvious thread running through all the segments is of course, Havana, and its mesmerising music. We get different perspectives of life in Havana, both as a foreigner, and a local.
Monday: El Yuma - Benicio Del Toro
It was a surprise to see Benicio Del Toro directing, I've only known him as an actor in various American and Spanish films. His segment is interesting, funny, and impressive nonetheless, even if it may have a mainstream Hollywood feel about it, especially in its shot selections. Teddy, a freshly arrived American film student on what appears to be an exchange program with the Cuban equivalent (the Cuban film institute - Escuela Internacional de Cine y TV - is by the way one of the more respected film schools in Latin America), spends an eventful day with his cab driver. It is a mild comedy focusing on the city culture, quirks, and language barriers.
Tuesday: Jam Session - Pablo Trapero
Pablo Trapero, one of the most promising Argentinian directors, casts Serbian director Emir Kusturica as himself, visiting Havana to receive an award at a film festival. This is a beautiful heart-warming segment, where Kusturica develops a close friendship with his chauffeur and gifted part-time trumpeter Alexander Abreu during his stay. This segment is also the richest in music - Cuban jazz lovers will be in for a treat. Me loved it!
Wednesday: La Tentación de Cecilia - Julio Medem
Maestro Medem develops a brief but heady romance between a visiting Spanish talent scout named Leonardo and local star-struck singer Cecilia. She's split between affections for her long term boyfriend José - an unsuccessful baseball player, and her new 'temptation' that is Leonardo, and Spain. The segment ends with her opting to remain in Cuba. While it is beautifully filmed and edited, as can be expected from Medem, I was surprised by the stereotypical characterisation, due to which, I'm sorry to say, it fails to rise beyond the ordinary - nice, but nothing special. Cecilia is played by a real-life singer, the talented and beautiful Melvis Estévez.
Thursday: Diary of a Beginner - Elia Suleiman
Elia Sulieman appears as himself in this segment, trying to arrange an interview with the President through his embassy. Placing himself clearly as an outsider, he makes some interesting observations which are at times philosophical, and at times moving, but quite witty and engaging all the same, despite the absence of any significant dialogue. This is also my favourite segment of the lot, because it is exceptionally well edited and presented.
Friday: Ritual - Gaspar Noé
Gaspar Noé likes to go where others don't, and he doesn't disappoint, as he looks past modern Cuba, into its peoples' African roots. The premise for 'the ritual' is set when a family's precocious and modernised daughter crosses their threshold of acceptability, by having sexual relations with a female friend. It shows a family that is, against the tide, trying to hold on to values that their modern religion cannot safeguard. Noé builds up this premise to unleash his full range of stylistic features - saturated colours, quivering light effects, throbbing sound effects - all to convey the protagonist's inquisitiveness, confusion, disorientation, and fear. The casting is particularly brilliant, and we can all see Noé is still a graphic designer at heart - some of the portrait-shots are worthy of framing. And one really doesn't need to be a fan to enjoy this segment.
Saturday: Dulce Amargo (Bitter-sweet) - Juan Carlos Tabío
This is the only segment seen through the eyes of Cuban sensitivity and sense of humour - Tabío being the only local director in the film. We look at a day in the life of the parents of Cecilia (from the Medem segment). She pays a visit to bid her family farewell, and we won't know the reason until the end. Veteran Cuban actors Jorge Perugorría and Mirtha Ibarra play her parents. Most of their day is spent trying to deliver a cake for a local ceremony, against a backdrop of power-cuts, shortage of ingredients, and time. A slice of life in the capital lovingly seen from a Cuban perspective.
Sunday: La Fuente (The Fountain) - Laurent Cantet
French director Laurent Cantet's segment almost continues from the previous segment, focusing on where the cake is heading, and the reason for their fiesta. An elderly lady summons all her neighbours to convey a vision she had of the Virgin Mary asking her to organise a ceremony, which would involve some major painting and decorating, including construction of a mini fountain right in the middle of her living room. The segment primarily focuses on the community spirit, and how they pool together resources to get things done.
In summary, "7 Days in Havana" is a wonderfully eclectic collection of short films that observes life in Havana, both as a foreigner, and a native. Music is an important ingredient in all the segments. All seven are colourful, imaginative, and a joy to watch. Needless to say, Highly Recommended Viewing..!
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The Nudity: Melvis Estévez, Cristella de la Caridad Herrera, and Dunia Matos Hernández
The first instance is of Melvis Estévez who appears as Cecilia in Julio Medem's segment. Ms. Estévez, a gifted singer, also performs her songs here. There are some brief scenes of nudity, first whilst having a shower, and later at home with her boyfriend. There is also nudity from Cristella de la Caridad Herrera, she plays the precocious teenager in Gaspar Noé's segment, and partial nudity from Dunia Matos Hernández who plays the female friend of Ms. Herrera.
- The scene from Benicio Del Toro's segment has no nudity, but is interesting nevertheless. Young American Teddy is invited for lunch by a cab driver and his mother. When he is momentarily left alone while they performed errands, local prostitute Norka enters the house and propositions a bewildered Teddy. The cab driver's mum catches her red-handed. Norka is played by Claudia Muñiz.
- In Julio Medem's segment, Cecilia is invited to his hotel room by visiting Spanish talent scout Leonardo, who is also clearly infatuated with her. Cecilia accepts, and asks if she could take a shower first. She overhears a conversation Leonardo has with his partner-friend on the phone, bragging about his success in bringing Cecilia into his room, and promptly leaves. Cecilia is played by Melvis Estévez.
- Cecilia catches boyfriend José just when he's leaving for an important game. Despite his request not to tempt him before a game, she does.
- Gaspar Noé's segment starts with young people having a reggaeton party by the beach, during which 'the girl' is hit upon by a female friend. The girl's parents discover them together in bed. The girl is played by pretty Cristella de la Caridad Herrera, and her female friend by Dunia Matos Hernández.
- The 'ritual', where a shaman exorcises 'evil thoughts' from the girl under the watchful eyes of her parents...