A 'Tropical' Triumph at Filmfest's Cuban Night

By Ann Hornaday
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, April 23, 2002

There seems to be a mania in this country for all things Cuban, from Cohibas to the codgers of Buena Vista Social Club. So it's understandable, indeed well advised, that Filmfest DC would capitalize on the popularity of cubanismo, even if this year's films from Cuba are of strikingly uneven quality.

By far the most accomplished of the films, all showing tonight, is the work of an American, Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer David Turnley. Turnley makes his film debut with "La Tropical," a documentary about a legendary outdoor dance club on the outskirts of Havana. La Tropical is where bands are discovered and where hits are made, and where every night, under a carapace of stars and rising steam, voluptuous bodies slither, shake, weave, bounce, bump and grind to the sinuous beat of salsa and son. La Tropical, says one observer, "is the cathedral and conservatory of Cuban music." Say amen, somebody.

"La Tropical," which is shot in black and white with a Sony digital video camera, introduces viewers to more than a half-dozen Cubans whose lives intersect with the club: The wizened impresario, the young dancers, the bands and their families, a 76-year-old woman who has never missed a Sundayof dancing, and younger customers who are dealing with an unexpected pregnancy are just a few.

Eventually, these individual stories begin to add up to a fascinating commentary on the state of race, class and gender in post-revolutionary Cuba, and some of the truths that Turnley unlocks about those issues are surprisingly subversive. La Tropical, it turns out, is primarily a black dance club, and because its clientele is mostly poor and of African descent, it becomes something of a metaphor through which other Cubans can safely express counterrevolutionary feelings of racism and elitism.

As he does with his still photography, Turnley achieves a breathtaking level of intimacy in "La Tropical," which swirls and dances just as sensually as the undulating bodies at the club. Each shot in the film is so flawlessly composed that he often slows them down for maximum enjoyment, even at one point showing them as individual photographs, slide-show style. (Although Turnley shot most of the movie himself, the more complicated concert sequences were photographed by as many as six cinematographers.) Fortunately Turnley speaks fluent enough Spanish that he could enter his subjects' lives without benefit of a translator, which surely accounts for some of the more startling moments he is privy to, including a guitarist's unexpectedly candid critique of the Cuban government and a Yoruba ritual sacrifice.

Like the great journalist that he is, Turnley ferrets out a number of compelling stories in "La Tropical," and in doing so he reveals hitherto unknown truths about the culture he's investigating. But like a great artist he is just as concerned with form as with content. Much as Wim Wenders did in his "Buena Vista Social Club," Turnley elicits an impressive array of textures and tonal values from the usually inert medium of video: In his hands, the format is just as expressive as the silkiest 35mm film. Indeed, not since Mikheil Kalatozishvili's rapturous "I Am Cuba" (1964) has the country been evoked with such stunning visual power and lyricism. Like that classic film, "La Tropical" exists in a world somewhere between dream and reality. But even at its most impressionistic, this astonishing debut is never less than totally, and often brutally, honest.

Also at Filmfest DC tonight, "Van Van: Let's Party!" is an oddly desultory documentary about Cuba's most enduring and famous pop group, Los Van Van. The filmmakers clearly want to tap the following enjoyed by "Buena Vista Social Club," but "Let's Party" doesn't have as compelling a narrative or as charismatic a cast. (Even the brief appearance of a Los Van Van musician in "La Tropical" is far more revealing and evocative of the band's cultural power than the monologues and performances that constitute "Let's Party!")

The driving rhythms and insinuating sexuality of salsa music don't drive as much as seep into "The Waiting List," a quietly incisive political parable set in a bus station between Havana and Santiago. The film stars an ensemble of players as travelers who must endure a seemingly endless wait for two buses. True to the state of things in Cuba, the line goes on forever and depends on a delicate balance of aggression and altruism to cohere. When one of the buses breaks down, they must all pull together -- in the face of self-defeat, bureaucratic recalcitrance and an ingrained fear of authority -- to fix it themselves.

Director Juan Carlos Tabio manages to create a full and deeply textured universe within this tiny spatial and temporal outpost: Even though the camera rarely leaves the confines of the bus station, the audience gleans almost by osmosis an indelible impression of contemporary Cuban life.

Vladimir Cruz and Thaimi Alvarino seethe attractively as a pair of star-crossed lovers, whose desire for each other is inextricably linked to Tabio's own dreams of freedom, industry and self-expression for his own country.

La Tropical (96 minutes, in Spanish with English subtitles, at Visions Cinema-Bistro-Lounge) will be shown at 6:30 p.m. The Waiting List (105 minutes, in Spanish with English subtitles, at Loews Cineplex Wisconsin Avenue) will be shown at 6:30 p.m. Van Van: Let's Party! (81 minutes, in Spanish with English subtitles, at Loews Cineplex Janus) will be shown at 8:45 p.m.

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