La Habana llega a Yunai

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(NYRemezcla is a media sponsor of HFFNY 2007.)

The 8th Annual Havana Film Festival in New York opened with a son last Friday night — the U.S. premier of El Benny, a biopic of the legendary Cuban crooner Benny Moré. A well-made but rather familiar portrait of the artist, the film recounts the last ten years of Benny’s booze-soaked, sex-filled, turbulent life, after his return from Mexico, with flashes back to poignant moments of his past. We see his relationships with his wife whom he leaves, the chofér who becomes his friend, the chofér’s niece who becomes his lover, and the various musical collaborators and friends who pass in and out of his life as he struggles for greatness and the dream of leading his own band in an era of political upheaval.

As the wild, untrained musical genius, Renny Arozarena carries the film with zest even as he portrays the singer’s slide into middle-aged maturity and death. And the supporting cast more than holds its own with naturalist portrayals of the planets in orbit around this burning sun.

Under the feature-debut direction of  Jorge Luis Sanchez, the film looks good, solid and clean. And its sense of cultural context makes some scenes pop. For instance, the film jumps us into the early years of the country’s revolution, providing us, among other things, gleeful glimpses of revolutionary women soldiers marching in fancy sunglasses, a bearded soldier training to run a rural movie theater, and a broke musician’s dreams of moving to “Yunai” (the USA).

The film even teases us with a hint of a mystical subplot in which an obsessed nurse haunts El Benny and the singer’s shack-dwelling, guajiro family uses Afro-Cuban traditions to try to bring fortune to their beloved son. Unfortunately, however, these elements appear so infrequently as to seem superfluous. But, with the film already clocking in at more than two hours, perhaps this tantalizing subplot fell victim to the editor’s knife. The film does feel longer than it is and could have used some more snipping elsewhere as well. And how different was it really from the host of preceding artist biopics like Ray and Pollock?

Regardless, the audience seemed to like the movie – although one Cuban writer told me afterwards “que inventaron mucho” to make el Benny seem more self-destructive than he was. Such are the perspectives of history. But the music – some of it redone by contemporary artists Chucho Valdés (whose defecting father got a mention in the film), Juan Formell, Haila, and Orishas – was hot all the way through. That would have made El Benny smile – that, and a bottle of aguardiente.