73: Habana Eva (LAFF 2011)

wri-dir. Fina Torres, wri. Jorge Luis Camacho, Cuba/France/Venezuela, 2009, 100 mins

(This review is crossposted as part of The House Next Door’s coverage of the 2011 LA Film Fest.)

The representation of Cuba in cinema is exceptionally difficult to separate from its political context. Whenever the island is invoked in the movies, narratives turn into statements, if not full-blown mystery plays, designed for the exorcism of geopolitical demons. It’s something that can be seen all the way from Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s landmark interrogation of his post-revolution society in Memories of Underdevelopment (#48) to the imperialist bombast of Bad Boys II and its “Let’s invade Cuba, and do it right this time” finale.

Along with the premiere of the architectural documentary Unfinished Spaces (#66), this year’s Los Angeles Film Festival shone an international spotlight on Cuba, screening a quartet of films from and about the island nation. The films run a gamut of genres from reflective documentary to romantic comedy, but they are all unified by the ease in which one can read them simultaneously as small-scale reflections of life in Cuba and as footnotes in the political conversation.

Case in point: The festival’s artistic director David Ansen prefaced his introduction of Habana Eva, directed by Venezuelan Fina Torres, by saying that the film could be enjoyed as a simple romantic comedy, or as a parable for contemporary Cuba’s international dilemmas. And at first blush, it does glide right into a familiar genre pattern: Eva (Prakriti Maduro) works as a factory seamstress in Havana, but dreams of becoming a top-flight fashion designer. Her complacent engagement to good-natured but quasi-doltish architect Angel (Carlos Enrique Almirante) is thrown into disarray when sexy and wealthy expatriate Jorge (Juan Carlos García) drops into Eva’s life and she becomes his tour guide around the capital. The dilemmas of this love triangle play out in front of an array of photogenic Havana backdrops, and if you were to guess that there are romantic misunderstandings and turnabouts, bawdy sex jokes, and plenty of forlorn gazing over the water into the Cuban sunset, you’d be correct.

Yet the political reading leaps right off the screen. What does it say when the salt-of-the-earth Angel can’t finish building his fiancée a home because of lack of time and building materials? Or that Jorge, ensconced in Armani and Audi, is the scion of a capitalist exile eager to wrest control of colonial-era land holdings from the populist protagonists? Even the simple romantic gesture of a single red rose in hand becomes fraught with import if you also recognize it as a traditional symbol of socialism, and Eva changing her hairstyle by straightening out her cornrows seems to be one of a multitude of minor allegorical swatches.

Late in the game there’s a bizarre leap into some kind of magical realism that is neither particularly realistic nor magical, but instead resembles the premise of a ’60s American sitcom. The film barely manages to sell its third-act shenanigans—whipsawing from one plot point to another as if trying to set a speed record—through Maduro’s portrayal of Eva. Torres asks her to vault from sexy to goofy to rebellious to introspective, and she handles the challenges with aplomb. She charms both her lovers and the audience, and she holds the entire enterprise together even as it threatens to rip at the seams.