NEW YORK — The political and economic barriers cutting Cuba off from the United States have not kept Cuban movies entirely away from American audiences.
Cuban films have been a rare commodity, though, despite the many viewers who might welcome them if given a chance. Recent years have seen only a few releases on US screens, and only the late Toms Gutirrez Alea has gained recognition as a world-class director on a par with giants of European and Asian film.
This may be changing. New York's influential Film Society of Lincoln Center has paid commendable attention to Cuban cinema during the past year, helping to raise Cuba's profile within the American film community. Now its Walter Reade Theater is continuing the trend by hosting the theatrical premires of two major productions that will soon go into national release.
While these movies differ in tone and quality, both exemplify key characteristics of Cuban films made after the Communist revolution four decades ago. One expresses fascination with ordinary people living ordinary lives. The other - also reflected by "Buena Vista Social Club," the recent Wim Wenders documentary - has a hearty appreciation of how art and culture can enrich everyday experience.
The more exciting of the new releases, Life is to Whistle by Fernando Prez, is an adventurous blend of high drama, low comedy, and experimental storytelling techniques. The narrator is a teenage girl whose hyperactive imagination churns out a string of interlocking tales. Among the characters she dreams up are a young ballerina who vows to give up men if she can dance a cherished role; a worker whose mysterious fainting fits turn out to have an amusing cause; and various others who cross one another's paths in unexpected ways.
As its title suggests, "Life is to Whistle" sees music and fun as essential parts of human fulfillment, even if these admirable activities aren't always as readily available as we'd wish.
Music is also at the heart of If You Only Understood by Rolando Diaz, a "musical documentary" about a Cuban filmmaker prowling Havana in search of a black woman to star in his next picture.
Painting a multifaceted portrait of contemporary Cuban life, the film doesn't hesitate to criticize the racism, sexism, and economic inequality that cause daily unhappiness for many of the women - a nurse, an engineer, a playwright, and others - who candidly discuss their lives before the camera. Although it will appeal most strongly to moviegoers with a special interest in Cuban culture, "If You Only Understood" is recommended viewing for anyone seeking a deeper understanding of this rich and varied society.
* The films are not rated and contain no objectionable content. They are at New York's Walter Reade Theater through Jan. 13, under the overall title 'Cuba x 2,' and then go into national release. 'Life is to Whistle' will also be shown next month at the Miami Film Festival and the Portland (Ore.) Film Festival.
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