Both the Cuban-Spanish coproductions in the Reade’s “Love Letters to Cuba” program are simpatico and engaging. Fernando Perez’s Life Is to Whistle, a striking blend of absurdist humor and mystical magic realism, is the more formally adventuresome of the two. The story of three Havana loners, it’s narrated by teenager Bebe (Bebe Perez), who pops up throughout the film in a number of odd locations, often underwater. Two of these characters are Bebe’s buddies from the orphanage where she was raised; the third, a frustrated nursing home employee, has a crush on her shrink and faints whenever she hears the word “sex.” Her tale is entwined with that of Elpidio (Luis Alberto Garcia), a dreadlocked petty thief with an Oedipus complex, who steals money from women tourists and falls in love with one of his marks, a Greenpeace marine biologist who has dropped into town on a balloon. Nymphomaniac ballerina Mariana (Claudia Rojas), the most intriguing of the group, gets her comeuppance when, after making a vow of chastity to the Virgin in exchange for a career break, she’s given the lead in a new ballet and promptly falls in love with her hunky partner. The lives of this angst-ridden trio finally intersect on the day of the African saint Chango, ruler of destinies.
Perez’s film is shot through with loopy charm and handsome, often oneiric visuals, inspired by Magritte. The exhilarating musical score of Bola de Nieve and Benny Moré goes far to soothe away the heartaches.
Rolando Diaz, who lives in self-imposed exile in the Canary Islands, had plans for a musical set in Havana, but the deal fell through. Instead, he made If You Only Understood, a “dramatized documentary” about the casting call for a fictitious musical that requires a young black actress for its lead. Ten candidates are interviewed and they all discuss their lives at length, including racism, poor housing, and unemployment. It’s a gutsy flick; these subjects are not often publicly discussed in Cuba. It’s also mostly a relentless—and somewhat repetitious—talking-heads affair that would have been twice as effective at half its length.