By Reynaldo Lastre (El Toque)
HAVANA TIMES – On August 6th, Netflix included Vivo, another movie about Cuba, in its trimester movie lineup. In 2016, Vientos de La Habana (Félix Viscarret) was featured, an adaptation of one of the most well-known novels written by Leonardo Padura, in connection with the documentary miniseries The Cuba Libre Story. A year later, Netflix added Cuba and the Cameraman, the documentary that summarizes Cuban history post 1959, with the systematic trips US journalist Jon Alpert made to the island over 45 years. In 2019, it showed La red avispa (Olivier Assayas), inspired by the spy network that resulted in one of Fidel Castro’s last ideological campaigns.
Vivo seems to distance itself from this distinct historic and sociological tradition, as it is targeted towards a child audience. It is an animated movie produced by Sony and conceived for the big screen, but setbacks due to the pandemic led to an exhibition and distribution contract with the online platform.
THE REAL MARTA SANDOVAL FROM CUBA
The story of Andrés (Juan de Marcos González) and Marta (Gloria Estefan), a successful musical duo on the Cuban music scene during the Republic, parts ways when the versatile singer accepts a job in Florida. After more than 60 years of silence, Marta writes to Andres – who is earning a living as a street musician in Old Havana’s squares, alongside his small pet – inviting him to what will be her last concert.
The letter stirs Andres’ buried feelings for Marta in their youth, to the point that he dusts off the lyrics to an old song in which he confesses his love, with the hope of getting a second chance. The little kinkajou who Andres calls Vivo (voiced by Lin-Manuel Miranda) is against the plan when he realizes it could uproot his life. However, with Andres’ unexpected death, Vivo decides to hand the song lyrics to the addressee, as a means to honor the memory of the man who was his owner and protector.
In addition to the often-sought strategies of US animated movies recently: a story of friendship between humans and animals, musical interludes with choreographies, the constant journey of the hero, etc., Vivo’s story gains particular interest with its reimagination of Havana and Miami, and its subliminal strategy of showing the lives of less visible Cuban immigrants.
The Cuban city is the protagonist of the first 25 minutes of the movie. Even though it is an animated movie, the Havana shown here is more in line with the city during Barack Obama’s presidency. Images of US tourists walking down the city’s streets alongside the idea of a joyful, festive and colorful city, circulated at the time via music videos, post cards and movies set on the island.
However, the most interesting thing is the political friction that escapes the main stage and is hidden in references or metaphors in the story. At the beginning, you hear the narrator say: “these kids have a perfect life”; while, at another time, Vivo tells Andres that they are ordinary people, not the Miami people, revealing a clear ideological contrast.
The movie’s set design doesn’t leave the perimeter of Old Havana, where only almendrones (1950’s US Cars), tourists and town criers move around. Almost all of the Cubans that appear are mulato, and they all know each other well or are familiar with each other, they are generous and live to the compas (beat) of popular music.
When Andres reads the letter on the Malecon for the first time, all of the passers-by are surprised when he reads Marta’s name, as if the passage of time hadn’t put a dent in the memory of her golden days.
People’s reaction when the old man stammers about going to Miami or not, is even more extraordinary. They all deduce that it is a financial problem and improvise a collection; which not only implies that Cubans can travel to the US freely (if they have money for a plane ticket), but also that a spontaneous collection on the street is able to solve this problem.
On the other hand, the movie’s scenes in Miami are full of modern cars and buildings, neon lights and references to technology and the Internet. While the contrast between the two cities seem to stem from a political clash, it’s clear that a North-South comparison exceeds this. However, Vivo, the pet who becomes the story’s real protagonist, offers the real key to a political interpretation of the movie.
KINKAJOU: A CUBAN ANIMAL?
In spite of kinkajous not being native to Cuba, but are instead native to the Central American jungle, their inclusion in the movie suggests a second reading about Cuba and the Cuban people. While the old man only needs a plane ticket to go to the US, Vivo has to travel illegally.
After meeting Gaby, a little Cuban-American girl who was visiting the island, he gets the opportunity to leave for Florida in one of her suitcases. Once at Gaby’s home with her mother, in Cayo Hueso, Vivo must travel to Miami in order to give Marta the song and thereby fulfill his mission.
Due to Gaby’s mother’s refusal to take them in car and it being impossible to take a local bus, Vivo, Gaby and other girls join them on an adventure and travel through the Everglades. The trip becomes dangerous, full of attacks by deadly animals and short-tempered storms, which is an indirect reference to the journey that Cuban migrants embark on through the Darien Gap. At the end, it’s interesting that Vivo (who adamantly refused to leave the island in the beginning and then insinuates his desire to return) ends up working as a street musician in Florida.
The role Vivo plays (a small, educated animal who is intelligible to viewers just by talking, but not to those who surround him) points out that the existence of a kind of Cuban in the Obama period that were unable to speak. The movie thereby becomes a metaphor of a Cuban who, is still the protagonist of many stories, but ends up being crushed by the circulation of narratives of a more pleasing and sophisticated Cuban-ness.