THE STORY – A nurse befriends an Alzheimer’s disease patient who tells her about his colorful past as a famous Cuban musician.
THE CAST – Ana Golja, Louis Gossett Jr., Shohreh Aghdashloo, Lauren Holly & Giacomo Gianniotti
THE TEAM – Sergio Navarretta (Director) & Alessandra Piccione (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 109 Minutes
By Cody Dericks
The advantage that film has over some other art forms is the ability to make a specific character’s perspective real. The greatest strength of director Sergio Navarretta’s new film, “The Cuban,” is the use of vivid and vibrant images that put us in the headspace of the title character’s failing mind. Evoking empathy without a word of dialogue is an impressive feat, and it is therefore unfortunate that the times where the film’s characters are speaking are less captivating than the moments of pure visuals.
Although the title refers to a dementia-ridden musician named Luis Garcia (Louis Gossett Jr.), “The Cuban’s” main focus is Mina (Ana Golja), a young Afghan-Canadian pre-med student working in an elderly care facility. She struggles to find her place at her job until she meets Luis, who spends all his time sitting in his wheelchair lost in thought. Inspired one day by a jazz poster in Luis’s otherwise bare room, Mina begins to hum a tune that suddenly awakens something in Luis. She goes on to learn that he used to be a musician and that he first came to attention in his native Cuba before performing all across the United States. She finds a connection to her own abandoned musical aspirations in Luis and begins to attempt to bring him back to a place of happiness and awareness through music.
When Mina finds new connections to Luis’s musical past, the film shows us exactly what he’s reminiscing about. In these moments, the film succeeds the most. These visualizations of memory are vibrant, colorful, and always scored by fantastically lively Cuban music. Navarretta uses a mixture of evocative camerawork and dream-like editing to put us squarely in Luis’s mind. These moments also contrast nicely with the look of the rest of the film, which is mostly presented with muted colors and grounded purposefully-minimalist cinematography. It’s an effective way for the film to visualize the melding of the past and present with which Luis is constantly grappling.
These moments are made even more poignant by Louis Gossett Jr.’s great performance as the musician. The character is mostly non-verbal, and Gossett Jr.’s physical work is subtle and expressive. There are many close-up shots of him during moments of confusion or sudden recognition, and Gossett Jr. constantly finds new shades of expression in what could otherwise be a very repetitive performance. There’s a reason he has an Oscar. Another expert performer, Shohreh Aghdashloo, turns in a captivating performance as the main character’s strict but loving aunt. Aghdashloo’s famously hefty speaking voice lends the character an inherently captivating quality, and the actress’s ability to effortlessly capture the camera’s attention works to her advantage in this film. Even a scene of her simply drinking wine and listening to music alone is engaging and dramatically important thanks to her.
Unfortunately, the screenplay doesn’t leave quite so good an impression. The basis for the story is a compelling one, but as the film goes on it has trouble staying focused on what makes this story worth telling. The film spends an unnecessary amount of time showing us the various mini-dramas happening in Mina’s life, and none of these subplots and side characters are as interesting as her interactions with Luis. There are many scenes of almost perfunctory conflict as if the screenplay is checking off mandatory story beats.
“The Cuban” is ultimately worth watching for its visuals and its two veteran supporting performances. It is therefore disappointing that most of the story that surrounds these laudatory aspects is less memorable.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – Uses fantastic visuals to put us in the mind of the title character, and features great performances from Gossett Jr. and Aghdashloo.
THE BAD – The screenplay lacks focus and uses too many clichéd story beats.