Closing out the UK Jewish Film Festival is Sin La Habana, which is a funny coincidence with all the Cuban movies I’ve been watching with Havana Glasgow. Sin La Habana is about a Cuban ballet dancer who makes a plan to get him and his girl out the country.
The opening scene is of Leo getting a Santeria blessing for good luck so that he might get the part of Romeo in the upcoming production of Havana’s ballet company. They are going on a worldwide tour, and Leo desperately wants to get out of the country, and start a new life with his girlfriend, Sara. All the good advice he gets from the Orisha, they tell him, “You must improve your character and be more equanimous”, he then soundly ignores, leading to his journey in the film to go astray.
When the company post the parts for the production, he is given the part of Prince of Verona, instead of the lead, Romeo. He is enraged, marches into the director’s office, demanding to know why he’s not the lead when he is the best dancer. Now, if he’d even stopped there, he might have still been ok, but when the director tells him that he might be the best dancer, but his attitude stinks, he’s entitled, he’s arrogant, and just like this right here, he doesn’t take instruction and work together with the ensemble, always charging in like he is a soloist, Leo doesn’t take the criticism well. He calls the director a racist, and is promptly fired.
So he and Sara come up with another plan. He starts teaching samba to tourists, where he meets Nasim, a Jewish Iranian-Canadian. They decide he will seduce Nasim, get her to bring him to Canada, where he will marry her, and arrange for Sara to come after. Sara is not precious about sexual fidelity, but tells him not to look Nasim in the eyes when he has sex with her, this one intimacy being the bulwark against genuine love.
Everything goes to plan at first, but once Leo is in Canada, he feels totally lost. He finds it difficult to practice Santeria, casting offerings into frozen rivers. His auditions for dance companies don’t meet with the immediate success he was expecting, and he frequently finds the encounters humiliating. The only other Cuban he meets in Montreal manages to get him a job in a fish factory, earning dogshit wages.
He is desperate to see Sara again, so goes in debt to pay his Cuban-Canadian mate to marry her and bring her back. Meanwhile, his relationship with Nasim is not as straightforward as he thought. Her father is a racist who doesn’t even want Leo in his house, and tells Nasim she should have stayed with her physically abusive ex-husband. Nasim doesn’t really understand anything about Santeria customs and he doesn’t really understand anything about Jewish customs. She half-knows he’s using her, but enjoys their relationship too much to really let herself think about it.
The whole story is one of self-sabotage, miscommunication, and disconnection. Leo’s dream is closest at the beginning of the film, and if he’d just played the Prince of Verona, he might have achieved his goals without much complication. But the path he follows is nothing but complication, and with every step it seems to pull the relationship he values most out of alignment.
I didn’t like some of the directorial choices. When the film tries to be stylistic, it comes off as affected and jarring, kinda takes you out of the flow of the story. Actually, when the focus is on just telling the beats of the story, it’s much better, giving the performances room. In fact, some of the most beautiful shots in the film are the ones where the director does the least, allowing them to speak for themselves.
The performances are all strong. I really like the guy who plays Leo, Yonah Acosta Gonzalez, because fundamentally the character is an asshole, and it’s hard to make that sympathetic. He doesn’t try to distract and overcompensate by making the character charismatic or bombastic. He also doesn’t let him off the hook by acting like he’s some poverty-stricken soul desperately trying to make it in any way to a better life. Leo’s life in Havana is pretty sweet, with the love of a beautiful woman, doing what he loves for a living by dancing, with his mother lovingly supporting him. He isn’t in some terrible situation that justifies hurting Nasim to get out. He’s selfish, he’s arrogant, he’s the cause of a lot of his own problems. So it’s amazing that Yonah manages to make him sympathetic. He looks lost, he looks vulnerable, he looks disappointed when he can’t understand what he’s doing wrong to thwart all his plans. He does come to care for Nasim, and is angry when he sees she doesn’t have the kind of support from her family that he has always received from his. The Havana dance director fires him, telling him he has no humility, and this whole journey is humbling for him. He just gets more and more lost and confused. Yonah really manages to capture the audience’s empathy, without altering the reality of the character’s flaws.
Sin La Habana is interesting because in a lot of the Cuban documentaries I just watched, they can barely convince people to move a town over, people in Cuba have a really strong connection to the place they’re from, and people in Havana love it fiercely. Leo is desperate to leave, but once he does, he’s adrift in Canada, unable to do the things he considers integral to his identity, like dance and practice Santeria. In Havana, he knows who he is. Without it, he feels lost.
A solid film, which despite some distracting stylistic flourishes, manages to take you on a really interesting character journey.