Truman (2015)

A man reaching the end of his natural life has to juggle his quest to find a decent adoptive family for his dog and an unexpected visit from an old friend.

trumanSpain/Argentina
4.5*

Directed by:
Cesc Gay

Screenwriters:
Cesc Gay

Tomàs Aragay
Director of Photography:
Andreu Rebés

Running time: 110 minutes

Truman says nothing and does very little except rest, sigh and sleep. And yet, the emotion that his presence elicits from the viewer of the film titled after him and helmed by Catalan director Cesc Gay is nearly pulverising.

“Truman” is a long-in-the-tooth, slow-on-his-feet boxer that has been with Julián, an Argentine-born theatre actor based in Madrid for more than three decades, for a long time. It comes as no surprise that Truman has basically become the divorced Julián’s life companion and second son.

After a brief opening scene in snow-swept Quebec (a running joke is that Julián consistently calls it the North Pole), we follow the middle-aged Tomás from his home to the airport and to Julián’s front door. Their meeting, after what we gather is too long, brings tears to Tomás’s eyes. But like so much else in the film, there is a gradual accumulation of details that clue us in about precisely why people act the way they do. In this particular case, the emotion comes not so much from seeing an old friend again but from the probability of this being the last time they meet.

Julián has been suffering from cancer for a while, and there is little hope left the new round of chemotherapy would keep him alive for much longer. Instead, he has decided to embrace the end and live out his final days far away from the hospital’s oncology department. He is also eyeing the future, and besides organising his funeral, perhaps the most important task is to find a suitable home for his beloved Truman.

While we see the dog only occasionally, he is never far from our minds, as his name pops up in conversations between the two lifelong friends, and we can see Julián’s concern for Truman’s future well-being gnaw at him, likely because it also serves as a constant reminder that Julián will no longer be around.

In the lead, Argentine superstar Ricardo Darín inhabits the lead role like a second skin. Unshaven but with a gravelly voice of gold and piercing blue eyes that can seduce or give a fatal death stare with equal poise, Julián is captivating to watch. Often an enigma, ironically the result of his unexpected and discomfiting forthrightness, he is at his most vulnerable in the company of his son, Nico, and the range of emotions that Darín betrays with amazing subtlety is heartrending.

Tomás, played by Pedro Almodóvar regular Javier Cámara, is an eminently likeable character who gives his old friend a great deal of leeway, even though his initial intention was to talk him out of skipping the chemotherapy. Over time, thanks to some gentle and not-so-gentle reminders from Julián’s cousin, Paula, we realise he feels a measure of guilt over not having visited Tomás more often, despite being in a much better financial situation than his friend the theatre actor.

This is the perfect combination of comedy and tragedy. Despite the grim reality of Julián’s health, his interactions with those around him – many of whom don’t quite know how to react to someone planning for their own imminent demise – produce countless scenes of laughter at the awkwardness into which he rushes head first. Whether it is his questioning of Truman’s veterinarian about dogs’ feelings after the death of their owner or his chance meeting with an old friend whose girlfriend he slept with and for which he now wishes to apologise, the narrative always finds new finds to entertain us with genuinely moving pieces of the puzzle.

But the real magic lies in the fact that many a scene derives its emotional power from us looking back at them with hindsight, perhaps none more beautiful than the aftermath of Julián’s spur-of-the-moment visit to Nico (in retrospect, a perfectly pitched performance by Oriol Pla). Nico is studying in Amsterdam and knows little about his father’s current state. While their interaction in Amsterdam is full of the awkwardness and warmth we would expect, we only realise afterwards what was really going on, and the revelation is enough to send the viewer grabbing unashamedly for the nearest box of tissues. And this is before a mesmerisingly staged final scene that will tear down any remaining diehards’ bulwarks against showing emotion.

While losing some of its texture in the final act, in particular during an ill-fitting scene that sees a major character storm off in anger, Truman is overwhelmingly a very well-controlled mix of comedy and melancholy. The performances are dynamite, with Darín deserving top honours, and the modulated rollercoaster of emotions that we feel heightens our sympathy for the characters.

Vale (2015)

These 10 minutes on Ibiza spent with five Spaniards and an American girl, despite the commercial origins (and intent) of the production, are simply irresistible.

vale-amenabarSpain
4*

Director:
Alejandro Amenábar

Screenwriters:
Alejandro Amenábar

Oriol Villar
Directors of Photography:
Eduard Grau

Cyrill Labbe

Running time: 10 minutes

A romantic story with a touch of magic, even when blatantly presenting itself as little more than a commercial for the Catalan beer brand “Estrella”, can still be affecting, and it is a pleasant surprise to discover how quickly the 10-minutelong Vale swoops us off our feet and carries us on a wave of laughter and curiosity off towards the stars.

See, estrella means “star”, and in this short film by Alejandro Amenábar, perhaps the most consistently awe-inspiring filmmaker the Spanish film industry has ever seen, the brand is not just a name but also a symbol, both literal and figurative, for the story itself.

Victor (Quim Gutiérrez) is a handsome young Spaniard we first meet next to the swimming pool one morning, hanging out with his handful of close friends. The one outsider, an American girl named Rachel (Dakota Johnson), catches his eye, and he tries to strike up a conversation with her. The problem is that he barely speaks a word of English. She only met up with Victor’s friends at a party the previous evening, as one does on the party island of Ibiza.

Their initial interaction is pure awkwardness from beginning to end, as Victor tries to string a sentence together but fails miserably, even as a smile never leaves his face. But then, something magical happens: He connects with Rachel through the intermediary of his friends’ interpreting, by revealing his comprehensive knowledge of the tiniest of details about movies, music and even art exhibitions.

The reason is an Estrella-inspired Slumdog Millionaire, which reveals itself to us through a string of very succinct  flashbacks that demonstrate how the promise of an Estrella with his friends and his decision to accept the invitation (the title, Vale, is a Spanish interjection that roughly translates as “OK”) ultimately exposed him to countless cultural experiences that he now draws on to impress Rachel on the other side of the linguistic abyss.

The visuals are sharp and clean, and we are always aware that Estrella Damm, whose name is the first to appear as part of the opening credits, is behind this project. And yet, somehow, we don’t care. The narrative has a very deliberate whiff of contrivance that we nevertheless succumb to because of the promise of magic if we suspend our disbelief.

This being a short film, the pay-off comes very quickly, although it has to be said that the ending is surprisingly open-ended. Vale positions itself as a romantic film of sorts by making it clear very early on that Victor, who not coincidentally is always wearing red (or showing off his strapping torso), has the hots for Rachel and by overtly referencing films about relationships, like Before SunriseLove Story and (admittedly, for a laugh) There’s Something About Mary.

Vale is too short and leaves us wanting more, but it is a gem of a movie that you can watch again and again and never grow tired of. Just like the Mediterranean climate in which their friendship blossoms over the course of a single day, these characters all have an irresistible warmth about them that makes us feel completely at ease, like we’re one of the gang.

Begin the Beguine (1982)

A slow-moving but heartwarming tale of a Nobel Prize–winning author’s return to the country of his youth is little more than a music video for Pachelbel’s “Canon”.

Begin the BeguineSpain
3*

Director:
José Luis Garci
Screenwriters:
José Luis Garci

Angel Llorente
Director of Photography:
Manuel Rojas

Running time: 85 minutes

Original title: Volver a empezar

The first few minutes of José Luis Garci’s Begin the Beguine tell us everything we need to know without using so much as a single word. A train arrives in the Asturian city of Gijón on Spain’s northern coast. An elderly gentleman gets off the train, but before checking into his hotel, he visits a downtown movie house called the Robledo, walks along the harbour where tiny fishing boats bob on the water, and then, at a football stadium, the sight of a chalk line beneath his shoe makes him visibly nostalgic, as do the cranes in the distance, symbols of development and the passage of time. We don’t know anything about this man, but we know this is the home of his youth, where he played football and went to the cinema, and we know this film will be about him catching up with the past.

Unfortunately, the catching up is as shallow as Johann Pachelbel’s recurring “Canon” (as well as Cole Porter’s titular ditty) on the soundtrack is repetitive. But the man at the centre, who wears a smile that tells us he doesn’t take anything too seriously, because wisdom or experience or merely the years he has spent on this Earth have taught him better, keeps our attention and connects with our hearts even when our heads tell us this is too simple a tale.

The man is Antonio Miguel Albajara, a native of Gijón who left because of Franco before moving to the United States and eventually ended up settling in San Francisco and teaching at the University of California, Berkeley. We later learn that he has just received the Nobel Prize for Literature and has made this detour on his way back home from the ceremony in Stockholm. Ostensibly, the reason for the detour is not so much to see the city of his youth as it is to see the girl of his youth, Elena. What happens between them, however, is nothing more than scene after scene of reminiscing, and the emotional connection remains superficial at best. Perhaps all the more so because of a secret that is withheld.

This secret is the real reason for Albajara’s return to Gijón, and it has to do with him knowing this will be the last chance for him to see the city and the streets he wrote about in his novels, and above all to relive the romance of his youth with Elena. To protect Elena from devastating news, he keeps the secret of his imminent release from the bonds of existence to himself and chooses instead to make the reunion one of blissful ignorance, as much for Elena’s as for his own sake. This decision, understandable though it may be, is not probed in any detail and ultimately remains firmly in the background. This would have been perfectly acceptable if the foreground had been interesting on its own merits, but that is not the case.

In the foreground, our attention is often directed to Losado, the buffoonish yet well-meaning manager of the hotel where Albajara is staying. It feels like every scene with him belongs in a different film, because the overacting is at times unbearable and does damage to the sincerity and the authenticity we would like to ascribe to Albajara’s interactions.

We learn that Albajara forsook not only his girlfriend but also a promising career as one of the best midfielders the town had ever seen, not to forget his best friend, “Redhead” (Roxu), with whom he shares a beautiful, tender scene in the middle of the film. Unfortunately, none of these events is treated with the seriousness or gets the elaboration they deserve.

The camera also has some peculiar, often downright amateurish moments to indicate loss: At two points in the film, the camera dollies either up or down to reveal Albajara sitting among a vast array of empty chairs – presumably to indicate that he is alone, or that the people around him have died or that the life he once had is no more.

And yet, despite its many faults, including a failure to ask how Albajara’s memory of Elena stacks up against his experience in the present, Begin the Beguine is full of warmth and thoroughly likeable. The primary reason for this is the quiet, subdued performance of Antonio Ferrandis in the lead, playing the character as a wise old man who has made peace with the world and is now also making peace with the past before he faces an uncertain future. Another reason is a wonderful scene in which the writer speaks to King Juan Carlos I on the phone.

But Pachelbel permeates the soundtrack as much as “Lara’s Theme” overpowered Dr. Zhivago, and ultimately we cannot help but think of the film as visual accompaniment to the music, instead of the other way around. During a final encounter at the airport, “Greensleeves” pops up in the background, and even though the connection is self-evident to the point of being simplistic, it is a joy to hear something else on the audio track for a change.

Begin the Beguine is a very shallow depiction of a key moment in the last year of a man’s life, but the central premise and performance are strong enough to carry it through its relatively short running time, and the film has to be commended for refusing to use flashbacks.

The Bride (2015)

Hyperstylised adaptation of Federico García Lorca’s Blood Wedding drowns in chichi and exhausts with meandering dialogue and too many slow-motion scenes.

the-bride-la-noviaSpain
2.5*

Director:
Paula Ortiz

Screenwriters:
Javier García

Paula Ortiz
Director of Photography:
Miguel Ángel Amoedo

Running time: 100 minutes

Original title: La novia

If all the slow-motion scenes in Paula Ortiz’s The Bride, an adaptation of Federico García Lorca’s popular Blood Wedding, were shown at normal speed, the film would likely be at least 30 minutes shorter. Besides these inexplicable visuals that produce a work that is so exasperating it is almost comical, the film is also doomed from the start because the hyperstylised, overly sentimental depiction of the play presents us with an incessant stream of dialogue that continuously remind us of the story’s theatrical origins.

The opening scene already spells trouble. A bride flounces about in the mud, before taking her horse to a home, dilapidated and half-ruined, in the middle of the arid Spanish countryside, where three people, including her father and newly acquired mother-in-law, are waiting for her. She (her name is never given) tells the woman she has come back because she is ready to die, and she explains why she left her equally anonymous husband during the reception and scuttled away with the mysterious, brooding one named Leonardo: While her fiancé/husband offered her safety and stability, she was attracted by the risk and uncertainty that Leonardo represented, never mind that he is married to her cousin.

But the scorchingly bright light all around these characters make it appear, at first, that this is a scene straight from heaven, or hell, but much more likely from purgatory. The landscape is arid and desolate, and the atmosphere among the group is woeful. Unfortunately, this first sequence lets the cat out of the bag by spelling out the major thrust of the story before it has even happened: This is the bride who left her husband on their wedding night to steal away with the man who makes her so lascivious.

Now, it has to be said, it would be a challenge not to sympathise with the Bride, as the hunky Leonardo is presented time and again as a silent type whose shoulder-length black hair elegantly frames the stubble on his face and his come-hither eyes.

But the fact that we know how all of this turns out makes the entire build-up to the wedding rather tedious. Granted, there are a few scenes in which we see Leonardo on horseback stalking the Bride, his presence (albeit in the background) a chronic reminder of opportunities as yet unseized. Throughout, the landscape takes the rather ludicrous form of sexual appetite, as on many occasions we see rock outcroppings looking like giant phalli that have sprung up from the barren wasteland.

Things finally start to get tense by the time the wedding rolls around, where Leonardo shows up (after all, he is married to the Bride’s cousin) and visibly sets the Bride’s heart aflutter. But every now and again, the film stalls out with extended slow-motion shots, or in the case of the anticipated sex scene, nearly an entire slow-motion scene that inspires laughter instead of either passion because of the act, or the dread because of the consequences.

At other points, including one moment during the sex scene, the film grinds to a halt to make it possible for a character to deliver a long speech that obviously originates in Lorca’s text. Such occasions are painful, as there is no movement in the frame, and the vast range of possibilities that the medium of film has to offer are not utilised to support the words.

One visual highlight, however, is a procession of roughly a dozen characters over a ridge that stretches from left to right across the screen. We see them moving along at sunset, and they appear only as silhouettes, thus calling to mind the macabre Dance of Death at the end of Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (Det sjunde inseglet), except that here the characters are not strung together but are moving forward of their own accord.

Whenever the film focuses on the sexual tension between the Bride and Leonardo, it is absolutely enthralling, but these moments are very few and far between. The far-flung exoticism of the landscape (the film was shot in Turkey’s otherworldly Cappadocia region) is a very good choice of location, but the unnecessarily lengthy presentation of some of the scenes and the refusal to sketch some major characters, like the Groom, as anything more than mere tools for the narrative’s mechanics is disappointing. This is not just a tragic story but a tragedy of a film.

 

Viewed at the Black Nights Film Festival 2015

Buried (2010)

Buried [2010]USA/Spain

2.5*
Director:
Rodrigo Cortés
Screenwriter:
Chris Sparling
Director of Photography:

Eduard Grau

Running time: 95 minutes

A high-concept like almost no other, Buried has an immensely ambitious premise that will draw throngs of viewers interested in seeing whether the film could possible find a way to deal with the restrictions it imposes on itself. It is a restriction of place, as the entire film takes place in a very small space: a coffin underground, inside which the main character wakes up during the black screen that opens the film.

While Quentin Tarantino played with the same idea in Kill Bill: Vol. 2, the audience will be right to wonder whether an entire film following the same approach could be as entertaining. But the actor playing the role also has to be up to the task, as he has to carry the entire film on his shoulders, and has to keep our attention for the full 95 minutes of the running time. The film therefore makes us ask two very important questions: Does the film overcome its self-imposed hurdles, and does the actor hold our attention?

The answer to both, unfortunately, is ‘not really’. However, the film does immediately grab our attention, as we wonder whether the man we find in close-up, Paul Conroy, will escape from his coffin, and how he will manage to do that. That opening black screen, during which we share the actor’s disorientation and fear, is also a wonderful way to start, but what the film fails to do is stick to this approach. Instead, perhaps as a way to make us forget about the tiny space, director Rodrigo Cortés and his director of photography, A Single Man lenser Eduard Grau, employs very fluid tracking shots that circle Conroy’s body, trapped in a tight space we lose track of because of the ease with which the camera moves about.

The actor is Ryan Reynolds, not exactly known for serious roles. This was obviously meant to be Reynolds’s big break from his comedy and superhero work, with many a close-up letting us understand his frustration and despair when a single tear streaks down his cheek. But even though his situation would seem to be easy to empathize with, Conroy is not exactly a likeable character, as anyone offering him assistance on the other side of the line gets a response that doesn’t seek to convey anything other than hysteria at his own situation and the expectation that he will snap his fingers and others will locate and save him. On the other hand, his interlocutors, for the most part, are equally annoying, as they keep on asking him how he ended up in a coffin and how he phone them if he is so far underground. These conversations lead nowhere and become repetitive very quickly, suggesting the dialogue was mostly made up on the spot.

Conroy doesn’t seem to be very clever, either, as he continues to use his lighter to illuminate his surroundings, even when there is no particular need to do so, except to keep an audience used to seeing images at the cinema satisfied. Of course, the lighter won’t last forever, and while this may create some tension with the viewer (who knows there will come a point at which the lighter will fail, perhaps to the utter surprise of Conroy), it also speaks volumes about how stupid Conroy is. Except for humanitarian reasons, there is no reason why we would like to see Conroy survive this ordeal. At best, we expect to see how far underground he is, or where he finds himself.

Buried was obviously made on a very tight budget, although oddly there are a few stylised shots, including one that features a cutaway of the coffin, that seem to want to release us from the feeling of claustrophobia the film obviously elicits. This approach is difficult to understand, as the director undermines the very basic idea that Conroy must be saved within a small amount of time because he will run out of air, and so might the audience. Instead, Cortés lets his camera dance all over the place, including capturing panoramic 360-degree shots inside the confined space that ought to give us an impression of suffocation, not liberation.

There are a few uncomfortable silence and utter darkness, but these are too sporadic to have any real effect on the film, as they seem to be added almost as an afterthought. The heavy breathing, coughing and shuffling in the darkness with which the film opens set the tone, but that tone is crushed when the camera reveals a man stuck in a coffin but having a camera (the audience’s point of view) that can easily move around inside the space.

Buried could have been a very impressive effort to involve an audience ready to sympathize with a man stuck in a tight space, but we cannot, because the character is so bad and we simply don’t have the same experience of fear that he is supposed to feel. Also, since when does alcohol burn the way methanol burns? Or is our hero drinking methanol? There are many questions here that indicate a film badly conceived around a rock-solid central premise. This was not Ryan Reynolds’s big break, and unfortunately the stylistic excess would be repeated in the Cortés-produced Grand Piano.

Grand Piano (2013)

grand-piano-2013USA/Spain

2.5*
Director:

Eugenio Mira
Screenwriter:
Damien Chazelle
Director of Photography:
Unax Mendía

Running time: 90 minutes

Eugenio Mira’s Grand Piano has a central conceit that has been incredibly effective in other thrillers, most notably Speed, Nick of Time and Phone Booth, but it squanders the potential of its idea by drowning it in style and spectacle without eliciting any fear or thrill in the viewer (not unlike the disappointing single-setting but visually extravagant Buried, which producer Rodrigo Cortés directed). In fact, one character’s actions during the climax are so wildly melodramatic, we cannot help but laugh at the utter absurdity of the staging and the lack of credibility.

The plot sees prodigious piano player Tom Selznick (Elijah Wood), who has not performed in five years after having had a breakdown during his last show, coming back to the stage to play the piano his late maestro, Patrick Godureaux, so cherished. He is expected to play a piece titled “La Cinquette,” which will require him to do strenuous finger movements at a superhuman pace right at the end of the piece, and he is understandably stressed out.

In an effort to calm him down, his conductor tells him that no one expects him to play perfectly, and that the audience never notices tiny screw-ups in a piano performance anyway. However, Tom is about to get the fright of his life when he takes to the stage and opens his sheet music. There, in bright red ink, are little scribbles that tell him to play every single note perfectly lest his actress wife, Emma (Kerry Bishé), beaming with pride from her seat in one of the boxes, gets shot to pieces by a state-of-the-art laser-equipped rifle.

Tom suspects this is a joke, but when he notices a little dot of red light dancing around the piano, and then on his wife’s face, he breaks out in cold sweat. In one of many moments that repeat throughout the film, he runs offstage to audible gasps from the audience, while the orchestra continues playing, to his dressing room, where he finds more evidence that his life is in danger, as well as an earpiece to follow the instructions of his would-be assassin, voiced by John Cusack.

For the rest of the film, Tom will be sitting in the spotlight, from the looks of things speaking to himself but actually communication with the man he cannot see and whose intentions he knows nothing about, except that they may lead to his own assassination. But both this mysterious man and Tom are very talkative, and it would seem little concentration is required to play all the right notes, or perhaps this pianist is just unusually gifted, as there is a continuous back and forth between the two with no sign of Tom, whom the voice in his ear provocatively, playfully and punnily refers to as “a man of note,” missing a beat, or more importantly, a note.

But what starts out as a very strong premise for tension is properly drenched in style, as Mira’s camera flies across the stage with wild crane shots, again and again surging over the orchestra towards Tom, and whooshily swirls around his one-in-a-million piano that contains the key (another pun the film plays with a bit too often) to his survival.

Elijah Wood’s big eyes are perfectly suited to the material, as the obvious curiosity he exudes fits with the enigma his character is trying to get a grip on. However, the character of his wife, Emma, is a big joke, and in a last-ditch attempt at tension during the climax, she is central to one of the most bizarre moments in the entire film, as she seems to pleasure herself with a song, performed impromptu for an adoring public, while her husband is running around trying to save them from looming execution. This detour into insanity will either have the viewer in stitches or make her cringe with embarrassment, as we simply cannot fathom how a story with such a serious premise could plumb such depths of farce.

Grand Piano has spectacle but no tension. We do not share the point of view of the audience but rather of the pianist, who on top of playing the most difficult piece of his life, seems to cope very well indeed with having his and his wife’s lives threatened by a lunatic who seems to be very handy with a gun. But wait until you hear what the assassin actually does for a living — one can hardly things could get much more preposterous! If Mira had defined his film more clearly as comedy, perhaps it would have been more enjoyable, but the strange combination of a life in danger and hilarious comedy in the final act make for an uneven viewing experience that few members of the audience will find satisfying. 

7 Days in Havana (2012)

7 Days in HavanaSpain
3*

Directors:
Various (see review)
Screenwriters:
Various
Directors of Photography:
Various

Original title: 7 días en La Habana

Running time: 129 minutes

Anthology films are often a bad idea. The exceptions to the rule are Paris, je t’aime and New York, I Love You — although, truth be told, they aren’t all that good, either.

7 Days in Havana is the same as most other anthology films: up and down, but mostly down, with only the city to keep it all from falling apart. Well, that’s not entirely true, but, for the large part, the spectrum of tones and approaches in 7 Days in Havana is as varied as the filmmakers themselves are, with almost no attempt to reconcile the different storylines. The list of filmmakers involved in this production is made up of Benicio Del Toro, Pablo Trapero, Julio Médem, Elia Suleiman, Gaspar Noé, Juan Carlos Tabío and Laurent Cantet.

The title says it all: 7 Days in Havana takes place over a week in the Cuban capital, and each day has been assigned to a different filmmaker, with his own cast and crew, though there is nothing to prevent “Sunday” from being “Tuesday,” except for one or two linking themes or character types. Monday, Tuesday and Thursday have scenes set at the fancy Hotel Nacional de Cuba; Monday and Tuesday have mostly English dialogue, while the rest of the film is in Spanish; Thursday and Friday have almost no dialogue; Monday has an LGBT character, Friday has a gay character, and Saturday has a gay character. One actor playing a taxi driver pops up now and again, and a young singer named Cecilia (Melvis Estévez) has an important role in two stories, but, even as a character, the city of Havana is strangely neglected, and the stories all seem to be sadly disconnected from each other.

Judged on their own, some of the episodes are not uninteresting and have some potential, but others have clearly just been added for the sake of completing the simple-minded theme of “seven days, seven stories, seven directors.”

The film starts off on firm footing, as a young actor from California (Josh Hutcherson), who is taking some classes in Havana and has a rudimentary grasp of Spanish, arrives — and we realize it was his point of view over the city that we shared during the opening credits, as the airplane came in to land. As so many tourists before him, he is in Havana to have fun and eventually gets involved with a girl who isn’t exactly what she seems. It’s a nice story, it has the requisite “secret” that is revealed, and it doesn’t drag.

The second story is equally good, though much thinner. In one of the film’s rare moments of comedy, we can hear someone throwing up while we are shown the black screen that always separates one day (and one story) from the next. When there is a cut to the actual scene, Emir Kusturica looks up at us from an underground bathroom in a Havana bar. He doesn’t look good, but the camera follows him — in a dazzling, unbroken take — upstairs, out of the bar, where his taxi driver finds him, puts him in the car and drives him to the hotel while Kusturica phones up his wife in Serbia and makes a drunken plea to her to listen to him. More action continues at the hotel, and everything is followed by the single camera that stays on him. Kusturica has no pretensions about himself or his image, and what we get is such self-deprecation that it is completely disarming and eventually utterly engaging. Little of note happens, but Kusturica is one of the strongest, most interesting cast members of the entire production and whenever the camera is on him, we are spellbound.

The third film is at times laughable, as Cecilia’s voice constantly features on the soundtrack as she sings in sugary tones about love and romance, while she herself is cheating on her handsome Puerto Rican baseball player boyfriend. However, the actress is charming, and it is a relief to find her again in the sixth story.

In the fourth, filmmaker Elia Suleiman takes his usual Buster Keaton–like tack and endures life around him in this strange city with an expressionless face. This episode pokes gentle fun at Fidel Castro, as the movements of Suleiman are punctuated by him coming back to his hotel at various points during the day to find the president on television, still orating at the same podium.

The fifth film, by Gaspar Noé, is a disaster and could potentially be the point at which most viewers flee from the theatre. When a girl’s parents find her in bed with another girl, they send her to be cleansed, and this process — during which she is ritually smeared with oils and rubbed with leaves and undergoes an immersion baptism by torchlight — is accompanied by a seemingly never-ending deep bass heartbeat on the soundtrack. The film is pointless, monotonous and a total and utter waste of time.

The weekend films (days six and seven) are much lighter than the others and benefit from some great ensemble acting. Juan Carlos Tabío, the only Cuban director on the production, made the sixth film, about a hot day in the kitchen, and on the Sunday an old woman gathers all the people in her building to help make real the dream she had about a Virgin Mary statue in her living room.

Some of the films have no respect for the 24-hour timeline, and there is no transition other than a blank screen. Few of them warrant the 15-minute running time they have, and that film by Noé is enough to make you get up and leave. Overall, 7 Days in Havana doesn’t show many sides of Havana, and the superficial sides it does have are only fragments of a very confused production.

Directors (in chronological order):
Benicio Del Toro
Pablo Trapero
Julio Médem
Elia Suleiman
Gaspar Noé
Juan Carlos Tabío
Laurent Cantet