Must artists be tortured to be inspired? Alumbrones, a documentary about Cuban artists, myopically presents Special Period-era Havana as a haven for scrappy working-class intellectuals. Named after the “bursts of light” that interrupted Havana’s frequent post-Soviet power outages, Alumbrones runs with one of its subjects’ most trite musings, and assumes that artists play “God” and “start the world anew” with each new piece. Director Bruce Donnelly treats his subjects like a pantheon of voices that speak in unison, refusing to identify them by name until the film’s end.
His would-be deities endlessly circle a single talking point, best expressed by printmaker Isolina Limonta: “Here in this society, we have many problems, and that’s why Cubans are so creative.”
Alumbrones‘s creators talk up their work’s restorative value, but never go into great detail about the world beyond their canvases. Donnelly’s vague, circuitous questioning is to blame, as when Parkinson’s-afflicted illustrator Pedro Pablo Oliva peevishly replies, “Don’t ask me those theoretical questions. ‘What is art?’ would be best answered by a critic rather than me.”
Oliva also inadvertently damns Alumbrones‘s crucial lack of anecdotal detail by adding, “All I’ve done is leave a record of my time.” Donnelly’s film only picks up when spring-winter couple Yamile Pardo and Edel Bordon talk about how they survived lean months together, eating, painting, and sleeping together.
“We would have sex just to fall asleep,” Bordon boasts before Donnelly lets him trail off. “It was complicated.”