Sin Alas (Without Wings) is a flawed film made in Cuba by a young American who has a real flair for cinema—for Cuban politics and history much less so. The film is based on a Jorge Luis Borges short story titled “The Zahir”, which is about how its narrator became obsessed with the zahir—an Argentine coin that he associates with the Arabic word meaning “visible” or “evident”. For the Arabic-speaking masses, it summoned up the power of certain objects to have “the terrible power to be unforgettable, and whose image eventually drives people mad.”
After reading “The Zahir” prior to writing this review, it dawned on me why I never felt motivated to read Borges. The story is a study in erudite obscurantism of the sort that can fuel a thousand literature dissertations and one screenplay that had trouble deciding whether to be consistent with Borge’s ultra-subjectivism or to tell a story about life in Cuba today with all its social contradictions. In trying to reconcile the irreconcilable, director Ben Chace ended up with an interesting failure. If his ambitions exceeded his talents, at least you can admire a film that took considerable risks on behalf of a decidedly uncommercial project. If nothing else, the film is a stunning look at Havana street-life today, something that is surely worth the $4.99 to see it on Amazon or ITunes where it premieres today.
The main character in Chace’s film is Luis Vargas (Carlos Padrón), a seventy-year old who used to write dance reviews for Bohemia, a Cuban journal of the arts and culture. As the film begins, he sits on the sidewalk in front of the apartment building he took over from his father, an accountant with an American agribusiness who fled the island immediately after the revolution triumphed. Unlike his father, Luis stuck around since as he puts it, “I wanted to see where this thing was going”.
As he reads Granma, he discovers that a dancer named Isabela Munoz (Yulislievis Rodriguez) he had a brief affair with in 1967 has just died. After going to her funeral, he begins to become haunted by the strains of a tune that he remembered from the days he spent with her but cannot place. It becomes his zahir, so to speak.
To help him track down the composition, he recruits his oldest friend Ovilio (Mario Limonta), an accomplished guitar player who has the brilliant idea to walk around Havana asking oldsters like them if they can “name that tune” as they put it in a popular 1960s TV show. The chemistry between the two veteran Cuban actors and the obviously nonprofessionals they interact with on the streets is what makes the film so memorable and bordering on greatness.
What undercuts its success is Ben Chace’s sketchy understanding of Cuban history and politics since 1959. Although he is a minor character, Isabela’s husband—a top Cuban military officer—is rather cartoonish. At one point, Vargas tells Ovilio he was taking a big chance having an affair with his wife since such a big shot could have had him killed. This sounds much more like the sort of thing that might have happened when Batista was in power. If Chace had simply said that the man could have had him fired from Bohemia, it would have been much more plausible.
Another false note occurs when in the lobby following a performance by Isabela, her husband questions whether the ballet was “revolutionary” enough since it romanticized the sort of domestic strife that could be found in any Havana neighborhood. Vargas remonstrates with the officer, telling him that art has its own imperatives and must only be judged on its basis to stir the emotions. One wonders if Chace has any real familiarity with Cuban art and culture, which departed from socialist realist norms from its birth. Cuban ballet has never been under the thumb of bureaucrats, nor has any other art form.
To give Chace his due, he has Isabela arguing with Vargas over the possibilities of leaving Cuba where they could enjoy a life together. She says that she is too committed to the revolution which allowed a poor girl from the provinces to become a successful artist.
There are inklings that the director, who also wrote the script, was sensitive to the pressures on Cuba that might make such a rags to cultural riches impossible in the future. A minor subplot involves a married couple from Vargas’s building named Yuni and Katrina who have been forced to live with her mother due to insufficient funds. Yuni drives a pedicab and can hardly make ends meet, while Katrina works in a restaurant owned by one of Cuba’s emerging petty bourgeoisie. As he begins to put the make on her, Yuni makes plans to leave Cuba by boat. An entire film could have been made about Yuni and Katrina, one that would have been an important artistic intervention into the key question facing Cubans today—namely whether it will be possible any longer for someone like Isabela Munoz to make the transition from an impoverished countryside into the top ranks of Cuban dance.
In an interview with the Hollywood Times, Chace sounded really good on the responsibility of artists, particularly those from the USA, to tell the truth about Cuba. Even if he succeeded only partially, he deserves our respect.
That’s the strange thing, and no one gets it. No one knows what the hell’s going on down there. I wanted to just show what people were going through and hopefully show that there’s just a lot of culture and humanity and great stuff there that in a way is suffering because of our ignorance of the situation. You know if we knew how fucked up it was down there we’d try to do something to change it but no one understands that we’re just given propaganda on all sides. We’re given this very thin and shallow idea of what is going on in Cuba you know? It’s like some woman dancing, Fidel, and what else do we know about it? A couple old cars. No one really knows what the daily struggle down there is like for people and my film I think touches on it, I think I did an okay job with this one character, but it goes deeper than that. You kind of have to go, and even if you go you have to spend a lot of time to get to the truth of it because people won’t say things out loud, there’s so much implicit stuff and there’s so much that you can say out loud and stuff you just have to witness. To me, it’s a labyrinth that’s why when I was like Borges, I was like what can I do to describe this, I need like a labyrinth blueprint to like tape images to and collect this thing and hopefully it will come close to representing something about the reality of that place.