76: Suite Habana (LAFF 2011)

dir. Fernando Pérez, Cuba, 2003, 84 mins

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

The 2003 film Suite Habana is the Cuban film at the festival most disconnected from questions of politics, mostly because it’s also the most disconnected from questions of narrative. Director Fernando Pérez crafts a solid entry in the genre of the urban symphony—not fiction, but not exactly a documentary. Instead the film creates a rhythm for the titular capital through a day in the lives of ten of its inhabitants. Pérez searches for the soul of Havana and finds it in an overlapping mosaic of minutiae—the routines of the everyday.

There’s little dialogue in the film, none of it necessary; instead, the film communicates with us through image, gesture, and action. Patterns and connections unfold before us as hour after hour passes, and there’s a sense of the two sides to Havana: The doctors and rail workers and laborers of the day are the clowns, dancers, and jazz musicians of the night.

The pace of the film is a measured, languorous one, and though there are scenes of building and construction and labor, Pérez eschews any high-energy urban kinetics in favor of lingering on the tiny details. An inordinate amount of time is spent following these people as they buy, prepare, and eat their meals. Perhaps this is one way the film finds inroads into the political discourse: Is the proportion of time we spend watching these Habaneros with their food reflective of the time and energy required for such a basic facet of survival? The importance of food is made explicit in the film’s epilogue, which profiles the characters we follow; one of them is an elderly woman who sells peanuts to survive. We are told each person’s dream in life, and with her Pérez tugs at the heartstrings by informing us “she dreams no more.”

At times the movie finds its strength not in the lives it follows, but in the identity of the city itself, the urban framework that gives structure to these people. The oh-so-photogenic lighthouse and breakwaters of Havana’s harbor are a sight we return to like a refrain; also featured in Habana Eva (#73) and Boleto al Paraiso (#74), they’ve become the city’s cinematic signifiers. We spend quite a bit of time wandering through Havana’s sun-dappled plazas and boulevards, almost to the point of a travelogue—until we snap back to the characters and see the streets as the conduits by which they conduct their lives. The power of the city symphony film—a power that Suite Habana trades on—is that by locating and observing the spirit of a city, we can see how that environment shapes the identities of those who call it home.