Chico and Rita

The film opens with Chico staring out of the window to view, the old streets of La Havana. Just as the city itself has deteriorated over time, so has Chico’s motivation for life. He changes the radio station only to find that most of them are broadcasting Fidel Castro’s speeches, but then he finally finds one, playing music. It’s the Melodies of Yesterday playing on the radio. The song takes him back to the Havana of his youth where he met Rita.

Chico and Rita met in 1948 before the revolution when Havana was a bustling city with colorful streets, historical buildings, large casinos, fancy hotels and bars. Back then, musicians gathered freely to play and sing without fear that the government would shut them down. From the moment Chico met Rita, they were drawn to each other, but neither wanted to show it, so they played hard to get until Rita decides to join his group of friends. Later, in the middle of the night, when everyone goes home, Chico plays the piano as she sings to the melody in a shoddy bar. On the screen, Rita’s voice moves along with her curves underneath a yellow dress, twirling about and giving sensual glances and smiles at Chico.

Just as their romance quickly begins, it erupts into anger when Rita discovers that Chico has a woman on the side; though he doesn’t actually care for her. Chico continues to chase Rita until she agrees to sing with him in a competition. They win and eventually get offered an ongoing singing gig at a famous hotel. Through one misunderstanding or another, they are once again embroiled in an inconsolable argument, and Rita abandons Cuba for New York City, thinking Chico betrayed her.

The paring of the animation and music creates a sultry world where characters seem to naturally fall in love. La Havana has a magical quality with illustrious architecture. The detailed chromatic animation, done by artist Javier Mariscal, captures the tone and mood of Cuba and New York City in the late 1940s and 1950s. The directors (Fernando Trueba, Javier Mariscal, Tono Errando) were actually able to replicate many of the streets from photo archives the Havana city government had kept since 1949. We also get views of the urban, sometimes snowy landscape of NYC. When Chico and his friends arrive to New York City, they witness their first blanket of snow. They also visit Central Park, the Statue of Liberty, and famous hotels and music venues like the Village Vanguard where many Jazz legends played. Much of the soundtrack includes original Jazz and Bolero standards by Cuban Jazz legend Bebo Valdes Valdés.

The music and drawings are favored over longer dialogue and character development, to the point of leaving many things to assumption. Some characters appear one-sided, and without giving much time to reflecting on their actions. There are some missing scenes that could have been used to broaden out the story.

The film has a quick pace as we are taken from Cuba to New York to Paris to Las Vegas, as Chico follow’s Rita’s path. Between these moments the two try to stay together only to distance themselves once more because of their fiery tempers. When Chico returns to Cuba, he finds La Havana without music or life, now that his girl is gone.He sees the political situation worsening, with the onset of the revolution and Fidel’s communist government. Only the complaints of neighbors about the power outages can be heard. Rita was his heart and soul, which he expressed through piano melodies.

It almost seems unfair how destiny keeps playing with them, but it also seems silly how moments arise, which could have easily been solved, but yet, they give in to an absolute fate. “Why does it always have to be so dramatic?” should be a common thought, but maybe love and suffering go hand in hand for these two.

Before Night Falls, by Reynaldo Arenas

It begins with thunder.

I was still on shaky grounds back in December when I was looking for a new place to live. The second house I moved to was an odd mystery, and I mostly fell to despair knowing that I would have to move out again. But before I left, I found this book buried atop a shelf, along with other ones put on display, but not meant for reading.

It begins with thunder in Louisiana the first time I read Before Night Falls. I was not only physically closer to Cuba, but now Reynaldo Arenas was recounting its history through honest, vivid language, leaving everything in the open—a stark difference from the coldness of the big house I found myself in. Arenas’ life begins with thunder and trees shuddering from violent winds in the countryside of Cuba. From there he describes his best and worst years, witnessing the disappearance of freedom in the island he loved.

In the introduction, The End, Arenas warns readers the tale of his youth doesn’t hide its beauty nor ugliness, as he gives an honest documentation that people may want to reject. He calls this autobiography, “his vengeance against most of the human race,” a rather liberating, anti-authoritarian account.

Palmettos. Image: Cynthia Via

What drew me to Arenas was his love of nature, passion for writing and courage to stand up to an oppresive government. As a boy he lived with his mom and extended family in the countryside: aunts, uncles, grandparents, the whole flock of them. He ran naked and played house with other kids often with nothing more than chickens and dirt surrounding them. While that does sounds like a bucolic paradise for a child, it wasn’t actually. Arenas believed that his childhood was an honest portrayal of his  animalistic instincts often reigning over morality.

His descriptions of rain remind me of how I felt as child listening to thunder: ” It was no ordinary rainfall. It was a tropical drenching heralded by violent thunder in cosmic, orchestral bursts that resounded across the fields, while lightning traced the wild designs on the sky, striking palm trees that suddenly burst into flames and then shriveled like burnt matches.”

Apart from the horrid reality of growing up neglected (his father had all but abandoned him when he was a child, and his mom was never around), Arenas had been left to wander under large trees, digging soil and finding shelter whenever the rain came. Nature distracted him from the cruelty of being alone, and in hindsight his younger years prepared him for the hardships he later faced.

Before Night Falls is about a man exploring his youth and sexuality under a totalitarian regime, as much as it about discovering the true nature of humans when confined to an oppresive state. Arenas’ story goes so far as to spit on the image of that restrictive society that Fidel Castro’s communist regime imposed on the Cuban people.

“A sense of beauty is always dangerous and antagonistic to any dictatorship because it implies a realm extending beyond the limits that a dictatorship can impose on human beings. Beauty is a territory that escapes the control of the political police.”

As a young man, he frequented many beaches and loved to swims much as he loved being with other men. He writes, “perhaps subconsciously we loved the sea as a way to escape from the land where we were repressed; perhaps in floating on the waves we escaped our cursed insularity.”

By the 1970s Cuban government outlawed swimming and traveling by sea, since many Cubans began escaping the island after the state tightened control. This didn’t stop Arenas from trying to escape himself or at least to get his manuscript overseas. When individuals are prohibited from making their own decisions and pursuing their dreams eventually they will venture out, despite the risks and reprisals from the state. It’s counter-intuitive to restrict your citizens from freedom of speech, sexuality and other human rights for the sake of enslaving them to the whim of one leader and a corrupt party. State control in Cuba did not improve the country’s economy nor did it allow for any creative or cultural progress instead it made citizens distrust one another, as they became solely depended on the government to make decisions for them, which resulted in the suffering of many Cubans at the hands of an ill-prepared dictator.

Arenas was able to get his manuscripts out of Cuba and eventually, he too left the island to recount the injustices taking place the island. The survival of his manuscripts emphasizes that the poetry of life always wins.

Many of the political events in the book have been documented in other works, but no one has been brought to justice. And almost 60 years after the Communist Revolution, the Cuban government still violates human rights while keeping its citizens in poverty, and the Castro family remains in power. What about all those who died in the sugar-mill work camps and political prisons?