Not a discouraging political word mars Karim Dridi’s Cuba Feliz (Film Forum, through June 18), a minimalist documentary that follows an itinerant musician from one end of Cuba to the other and back again, but suffering is never far away. “I’m just an old street singer who destiny has treated badly,” sings 76-year-old Miguel del Morales—known as El Gallo—in a broken yet beautiful voice before setting off from Havana. “My life is a horror to think of.” French director Dridi’s one-dimensional portrait of El Gallo is organized as a series of felicitous musical homecomings (hence the title), with the leathery, cowboy-hatted singer traveling by truck or train to Santiago, Guantánamo, Camagüey, and Trinidad with nothing but his guitar and the clothes on his back. Once El Gallo arrives in town, he catches a nap in a loaned room, drinks a little rum, and plays his guitar with the locals before rambling down the street alone into one gorgeous Caribbean sunset after another.
Dridi’s Cuba is a materially barren island in which the Afro-Cuban musicians visited by the Hispano-Cuban El Gallo drop into song with optimistic spontaneity, displaying the musical soul taken international by the Buena Vista Social Club while perhaps hoping for the same payday. How they spend the rest of their time is anybody’s guess. They delightedly reprise classic boleros such as Beny Moré’s “Bésame Mucho” or improvise sly rumbas with conversational call-and-response lyrics: Rambunctious trumpeter and elderly yoga adept Pepe Vaillant nicely offsets El Gallo’s wary reserve, and guitar maker Gilberto Mendez croons buttery boleros while crafting a new instrument for El Gallo. In the most emotional scene, a feisty young rapper holds his ground against a patronizing older changui singer through deft rhymes whose honeyed flow becomes a manifesto unto itself.
Frustratingly, Dridi tells us nothing about El Gallo other than what emerges through his music. The production notes, however, reveal that this is El Gallo’s first trip around the island. The black musicians so happy to see this tough old bird are fans enamored of a legend the film refuses to elucidate. And we’re left with the impression that the stanzas of these nostalgic boleros are probably the only real home he’ll ever know.