Just last week this column trotted out the movie industry’s defense — post-Colorado “Batman” shootings — that films don’t influence actual behavior. Now along comes “7 Días en La Habana (7 Days in Havana),” a raucous compendium film that features scene after simmering scene of people getting righteously hammered on shots of the local firewater, good old Cuban rum. Did I mention that one of the film’s main backers was Havana Club International?
So why was it I felt like hopping on a plane and heading over to La Habana for some of that tasty late-night action, where every bar boasts impeccably faded 1950s retro ambience, and the ripe chicas are shimmying sultrily as round after round of rum shots flow over the bar?
In that sense, “7 Days in Havana” is an effective commercial for the Caribbean nation’s charms — and one that’s probably needed, considering the continuing United States-led effort to boycott the nation into submission for, well, not being the kind of communist nation that lets American capitalists exploit its labor force ruthlessly, like China. Whether or not it works as a film is another question.
Like nearly every compilation film ever, “7 Days in Havana” is definitely a mixed bag; the film features seven stories by seven directors, each set on one of seven days, with an overall rewrite loosely tying them together by author Leonardo Padura Fuentes, well known for his hardboiled crime novels set in the Cuban capital. Despite his presence, however, many of the directors can’t seem to imagine much beyond the typical tourist viewpoint: prostitutes, over-qualified cabbies hustling to make tourist dollars, boat people, the Hotel Nacional de Cuba and, of course, lots of rum.
Kicking things off is Benicio del Toro in his directing debut with “El Yuma,” which features a young American actor (we know he’s American because he’s dressed like he just stepped out of a Gap ad) visiting Havana for the first time and primarily interested in getting laid, despite his driver (a university-educated engineer) trying to show him more of life in the city. It’s a one-note episode, rarely rising above the most obvious clichés of the city, and it telegraphs its punch line ages before it executes.
The shaky start continues with Argentinian director Pablo Trapero’s “Jam Session.” Filmmakers on the festival circuit often seem to think that making a movie about a director at a film fest is a great idea, but such navel-gazing usually doesn’t amount to much, and this is no exception. In it, real-life Serbian director Emir Kusturica (“Underground”) plays “himself,” receiving an award from a local festival and generally wandering off and making drunken trouble for his handler/driver (Alexander Abreu). We get overly-qualified cabbie No. 2 (this guy’s a brilliant trumpet player) and a view of Havana that never gets beyond the bottom of a tourist’s bar glass. The late-night jam session that eventually materializes, though, is worth the wait.
Things pick up slightly with Julio Médem’s “La Tentación de Cecilia,” which follows a nightclub singer (Melvis Estevez) who is thinking of leaving the country with a sweet-talking Spanish concert impresario (Daniel Brühl), but finds it hard to break off with her baseball-player boyfriend (Leonardo Benítez). Finally a bit of the local viewpoint is raised — the tensions between national pride and economic opportunity overseas — but the piece dissipates just as it’s picking up steam.
Next up is Palestinian director Elia Suleiman, who’s always been overrated in my book, but his “droll” attempts to imitate Jacques Tati’s deadpan comedy here are insufferable. Somebody is sitting by the beach; cut to a reaction shot of Suleiman staring rigid and blank-faced at him/her; repeat. It’s a sad thing indeed when a filmmaker can’t even manage to hold your attention for 10 minutes.
Finally things pick up with Gaspar Noé’s “Ritual”: A young lesbian girl is sent off to a Santería ritual to “cleanse” her, where, stripped naked in a river in the dead of night, she has a knife and other magical totems waved at her by a priest. Noé milks it for all the voodoo menace he can, with a soundtrack that’s all heartbeat bass drum and roaring insect noise, before undercutting our preconceptions with a very unexpected ending.
The last two segments, by Juan Carlos Tabío (“Strawberry & Chocolate”) and Laurent Cantet (“The Class”) are the most successful in taking us inside the Cuban perspective. In Tabío’s “Dulce Amargo,” we meet an older couple, working several jobs to make ends meet, and their efforts to rustle up the required ingredients for a huge cake amid power blackouts and shortages; the story also dovetails neatly into Medem’s segment.
Cantet’s shows an elderly woman, Martha (Natalia Amore), who enlists her entire block to prepare a shrine for the Santería virgin Oshun — within the next eight hours! There’s a good sense of the communal solidarity that has to exist among people dealing with tough economic times, and also some laughs, as the headstrong Martha demands a moat around the Virgin’s statue … on her fifth-floor flat. This too turns into a massive party.