Recently Cuba has been in the headlines as Fidel Castro's health worsens and the question of what will happen after he dies is debated. But these are not issues that concern the French-Cuban production of
Viva Cuba . Filmmaker Juan Carlos Cremata Malberti doesn't ignore political and social questions about his country but he definitely puts them in the background as he focuses on two young children.
Malberti lowers his camera to the eye level of his two main characters, Mal (Mal Tarrau Broche) and Jorgito (Jorgito Mil Avila) but he never condescends to them. He shows us the world from their perspective, always respecting their feelings and emotions. When we meet the two elementary school kids, they seem worlds apart. Jorgito is playing a violent war game with other boys his age. Their password is 'Viva Cuba' and they argue about who's dead and who's merely injured. Disrupting their play is Mal, a cute girl in pigtails, who claims she is the Queen of Spain, which infuriates the boys. The games and the arguments halt when their parents call them. Again, differences are emphasized. Jorgito's parents are socialists from a small town; Mal's single mom is from Spain. He's poor; she's from a family with money. When the door to each home slams shut, a sign on his door says, 'Fidel, this is your house' while the one on hers says, 'Lord, this is your house.' Needless to say, the mothers insist that their respective children not play with each other.
Yet the two kids still become friends. Jorgito gets into a fight with a boy that makes fun of Malu's mother; and Malu comes to Jorgito's aid when he's punished for the altercation. So when Malu discovers that her mother is planning to leave Cuba, the children decide to travel to the other side of the island to find Mal's estranged father and persuade him not to sign the forms that would allow it.
Malberti's previous film Nothing More used animation to deal with issues of bureaucracy, migration and segregation. For Viva Cuba , he uses a story of childhood road trip to touch on more serious issues as well. In the opening scenes, Malberti has the boys play at war and he employs realistic gun sound effects to emphasize the odd disconnect between the games and the real world'a real world that may soon intrude on the children's lives. He also shows that class is an issue even on the small Communist island. He also hints at the problems of emigration'the challenges of leaving the country and the difficulty for those remain behind to be able to ever reunite or visit those who have left. But these issues are all left in the background as the friendship of these two kids takes the forefront.
The film's strength rests with Malberti's ability to capture the children's point of view. He captures the melodramatics of their role-playing and the impassioned way they argue. He has an eye for the details of their life, be it sharpening a pencil in school or waiting impatiently for a plant to grow. There are also wonderful moments as when Jorgito suffers the punishment of having to write out hundreds of times that he will not fight in school. As he writes out his punishment, a paper airplane floats into the classroom. When he unfolds the plane, he finds that Malu has been writing out the repeated phrase as well to help him. The scene plays out wordlessly and boasts a charming and poetic quality. For the most part, Malberti lets the kids be kids. Only rarely does he force contrivance on the plot or artificial behavior on the kids.
The two young actors, Mal Tarrau Broche and Jorgito Mil Avila are delightful. They act without self-consciousness and only occasionally are forced to be 'cute' for the camera. For the most part they capture what it's like to be a child and to have their desires ignored by the adult world. Malberti keeps the film light-hearted for the most part but ends with a bittersweet image that isolates the children from the more complex world of the adults.
Viva Cuba (in Spanish with English subtitles and rated PG) does not deal head on with the social and political issues of Cuba but it offers a well crafted story of childhood friends that are affected by an adult world in ways they cannot control.
Companion Viewing: Nothing More, Before Night Falls, Paradise Under the Stars