wed 21/02/2024

7 Days in Havana | reviews, news & interviews

7 Days in Havana

7 Days in Havana

Portmanteau homage to Cuban capital offers little reason to break out the cigars

The Hapless American: Josh Hutcherson

The most famous hotel in Havana is the Hotel Nacional de Cuba, since the 1930s the only place to stay for writers, mobsters and, most of all, film stars. During the city’s film festival, the Nacional is the hub, with dozens of filmmakers sitting in the garden bars that overlook the Gulf of Mexico.

I mention this, because unfortunately the short films in the portmanteau 7 Days in Havana seem to have been conceived on bar napkins in this very hotel. Three of the stories not only have scenes at the Nacional, but are about filmmakers. And most of the contributions draw on picture postcard images of the city that are the first, often the only to be gleaned by tourist eyes.

Like any portmanteau, it’s a mixed bag. Overall, however, the film reminds me of Woody Allen’s excursions away from New York, when he seems to have recreated London and Barcelona from his Baedecker; so rarely does this escape the obvious that it feels like a wasted opportunity.

The first two segments form a natural pair. In Benicio del Toro’s El Yuma, Josh Hutcherson plays a young American actor staying in the Nacional while attending the city’s film school. On his first day, he is given a drink and dancing tour of the city by his driver, at the end of which he mistakenly takes a transvestite back to the hotel. In Jam Session, directed by Pablo Trapero, the Serbian director Emir Kusturica plays himself, in town to collect a life achievement award, but drunkenly avoiding the formalities in favour of also accompanying his driver, a talented trumpet player.

Both of these are amusing – del Toro’s has a lovely scene in which Cubans discuss the joy of seeing their first American film, 3:10 to Yuma, after years of “boring Russian movies”, and Kusturica has enough self-parody to vomit just as the award presenter says his name. But both feel desperately slight, visitor-fantasies of the “real Havana”.

Next up is an excruciating affair by the Spaniard Julio Medem, about a young singer torn between accepting the offer to join an oleaginous talent spotter on his Spanish resort (and in his bed) or staying put with her poor lover. Medem’s customary gratuitous sex and nudity, and a cheesy soundtrack add to the pain.

The Frenchman Gasper Noe offers a typically stylised and tense account of what happens to a young schoolgirl who dares to sleep with another girl, a foray into voodoo ritual, and his compatriot Laurent Cantet a wry tale of an old lady who persuades her tenement neighbours to build a Virgin shrine in her living room. The only Cuban director participating, the veteran Juan Carlos Tabío, follows a woman’s attempts to bake cakes for a party, the radio news of Cuba’s record-breaking egg production made ironic by the power cuts that threaten her meringue.

These three are all fine, but not exceptional, and poor pacing has the cumulative effect of making the “seven days” feel interminable.

The highlight of the set is by the Palestinian director Elia Suleiman, admittedly located in the hotel and featuring Suleiman as a version of himself, yet using both factors to advantage.

“ES” is a man all at sea in the city, literally lost in the corridors of the sprawling hotel, adrift in the streets and gardens, culture-shocked into a sort of trance. Suleiman skilfully uses cliché in order to subvert it. His character may look on as tourists pose with one of the city’s trademark Chevrolets, but the car has broken down – as they all do, starved by the embargo of parts – and the director himself has to settle for a less glamorous Lada. While he waits endlessly for an appointment with Castro, the president is seen making one of his marathon speeches on television; each time Suleiman returns to his hotel room, Castro is still going strong.

Deadpan behind heavy specs,  the director watches apparently lonely locals staring out to sea; but before we can make assumptions about isolated and dejected Cubans, one by one each is joined by a companion – one, hilariously, by a scuba diver – leaving the foreigner as the only person alone. Suleiman has made something that not only feels artful, but has the good sense not to patronise a place he doesn’t pretend to understand.

Watch the trailer to 7 Days in Havana

Most of the contributions draw on picture postcard images of the city


Editor Rating: 
Average: 2 (1 vote)

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Saw thus yesterday and agree about Suleiman's effort being the highlight. Gaspar Noe's was short but repetitive and Del Toro's solid but unspectacular. A little long in places, the film showed off Havana well but without Juan of the Dead's comic appeal.

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