Cuba has always been a playground for the foreign imagination. Americans, Canadians, Mexicans, Spaniards, French, Russians: all have crash landed in Cuba at one time or another to spin cinematic tales of the exotic and the erotic that may or may not have anything to do with the actual reality of life on the island. Oftentimes this outside gaze is inoffensive, sometimes even charming, and in rare cases it can provide new insights into the Cuban experience. Then of course, there are the numerous examples of gross exploitation that generally accompany this idea of Cuba as a land of exotic mystery, most of which tend to involve overt sexuality and aestheticized poverty.
So a glance at the synopsis of the latest film from Spanish director Agustí Villaronga, El rey de la Habana, shouldn’t really surprise anyone: a young man escapes from a correctional institution and struggles to survive through the hard economic times of Cuba’s Special Period. Shacking up in an abandoned building, he falls in with all sorts of sordid characters, from pimps and prostitutes to petty criminals, only to strike up a relationship with two indigent women that quickly goes to sexual extremes.
Now to Villaronga’s credit, the screenplay was based on a novel of the same name by Cuban author Pedro Juan Gutiérrez, but even so the Cuban Film Institute (ICAIC) refused to support the project and forced Villaronga to take his show on the road to Santo Domingo, which had to double for Havana on the shoot. This isn’t entirely surprising considering that the Cuban regime tries desperately to keep the lid on the island’s own problems with crime and drug use – preferring that foreign crews peddle a lighter image of life – but response from the Cuban public has been equally scandalized by what many view as an exploitative foreign appropriation.
To its credit, El rey de la Habana did pick up a Concha de Plata for Best Actress for Yordanka Ariosa at the San Sebastián Film Festival, but the rest of the international critic class hasn’t been as forgiving. Some positive reviews have pointed out the film’s tenderness and devastating force, but in general it has been lambasted as incoherent and excessively violent. To make things worse, Cuban cinephiles were recently whipped into a furor when Villaronga was quoted as calling Cuba “Europe’s brothel”, which prompted the ICAIC to call his words an “unforgivable offense.” Of course this may have been intended more as a criticism of Europe, but we’d wager Cuba’s actually much more than that.