HAVANA TIMES — Written and directed by Jorge Luis Sanchez, the director who paid tribute to Cuban music legend Benny More with El Benny, the film Cuba Libre was one of the films in competition at the 37th Havana Film Festival.
The story is set during the Spanish-Cuban-American war and the US occupation of Cuba that followed. The events are recreated through the eyes of two children.
The film, however, does not treat historical facts in any depth and leaves many loose ends: it makes no mention of the Paris Pact, a document through which Spain grants the United States possession of the Mariana Islands, Carolinas, Palau, the Philippines and Puerto Rico.
It also fails to explore the blowing up of the Maine, an incident in which US military officers and soldiers were killed. We are shown the image of a defeated liberation army, while military leaders such as Antonio Maceo and Maximo Gomez are left out of the story.
The plot unfolds in a nameless town, in a poor primary school belonging to a church, where children are hammered Spanish moral, educational, patriotic and religious values. There, the teacher and priest embrace all things Spanish.
Several sub-plots are woven as the story develops: one of the children is the son of a Cuban independence fighter and altar boy at the church. The other is the nephew of a Jamaican man and speaks English fluently. The tension and envy between them is evident. Later, however, they become friends.
The destinies of these two children cross when the US troops arrive and they decide to join this army, looking for a means to survive in a world of misery. One of the children acts as an interpreter for the Americans and Cubans. The second is hired as a pawn. The two wish to leave for the United States in search of a better future.
The film emphasizes Cuba – US relations, perhaps to remind us of the differences we’ve had in the course of years and our always disadvantageous position.
The art direction is decent, but the script falters and becomes diluted, leaving several loose ends, where characters (such as the Jamaican uncle) mysteriously disappear.
The score could have been put to better use, with pieces for each of the characters and not merely as a background to action sequences. There is an abundance of theatrical and grandiloquent phrases, spoken by actors such as Isabel Santos (the teacher) and Manuel Porto (the priest).
The child actors (Christian Sanchez and Alejandro Guerrero), however, offer a fresh performance, as talents in the rough tend to distance themselves from the clichés that professional actors rely on. They speak and gesticulate like two regular children in a Cuban neighborhood, without any evident effort, with the carelessness typical of childhood.
The film’s 2-hour run time is a bit much and it becomes boring at times, like a soap opera, relying on melodramatic conflicts between the main characters to keep spectators hooked.
The movie also makes use of “edifying” metaphors that prove contrived. Some of the characters undergo changes: the priest becomes an opportunist when he is given money for his church by a US officer. An independence fighter becomes the town’s puppet mayor, and the Cuban general, the father of one of the two children, commits suicide.
While watching the film at Havana’s Yara theater, a group of children and teenagers would not stop talking. Others ran amok down the aisles, without paying the film the least bit of attention, disrespecting those interested in seeing part of the country’s history reflected on the big screen, no matter what the film’s shortcomings.