Celebrated, misunderstood, condemned—Fina Torres’ newest movie, Habana Eva, is generating a lot of noise. Too much noise. Whenever a movie strikes such a chord, just like a video that goes viral or a news story that grows legs, something important is happening. In the case of Habana Eva, it is an easily misunderstood beauty that warms the mind into this love/hate contemplation.
The plot is simple: woman torn between the love of two men. Who will she choose? Why will she choose? Helping along the choices are the bff, two green aunts (literally), a distraught father and his hen (not only literally but bedazzled with medals), a mother and a gaggle of co-workers who, as a reviewer for Variety so wonderfully remarks, evokes the chorus found in Greek plays by Aristophanes, Plato and the like. They are there for comic relief but also to help or even confuse the audience.
And then there is Havana. I cannot remember how many movies I’ve seen featuring this lovely city. What I do recall is that none of them have depicted Havana in such a beautiful and haunting light. At the same time, this beauty is a decaying beauty. Not dirty for each scene was scrubbed clean of street rubbish, but a patina of soot and corrosion blighted even the most beautiful buildings. Immediately, memories of Dickens’ Great Expectations flooded my mind with Miss Havisham’s mansion and the rich depth such a setting infused into the narrative.
While this could easily be dismissed as set dressing and aesthetics of the most benign form, the ire of suspicion blooms with the audio of a radio announcer carefully placed describing “the housing issue” affecting Havana: “In the last 28 months over 194,000 homes were built but the housing deficit and dilapidated buildings are still a national problem.”
This isn’t exactly chick flick-worthy scoring. And for a while, much of the movie seemed to squeal nothing deeper than a peculiar romantic comedy in which the characters were simple and the plot was simple and the symbolism was…simple. It is this simplicity that warranted a very nasty review that excoriated the New York Latino Film Festival for awarding Habana Eva top honors. This collision of exaltation and condemnation was provoking. Who was right?
On one of my favorite NPR programs, On Point with Tom Ashbrook, Ashbrook reads from Jonathan Lear’s newest book, “A Case For Irony”:
“‘Plato also talks about the importance of the disruptive, disorienting experience as that from which philosophical activity emerges.’ He thought that beauty was a very disruptive god-sent madness that was useful in breaking out of our routine understandings in order to focus us on more ultimate…transcendent forms. Now I don’t think you need to go along with all of Plato’s metaphysics to think that he got the psychology right.”
The subject of the program was irony. In particular, they discussed how beauty can have this dazzling affect of being ironic and making us quake long enough to snap out of it, to begin to think philosophically, to think about things like Cuba and decay and beauty and choice. In a time when the more literal among us are rendering everything from religion to storytelling in their most basic, base, simplistic versions of themselves, it’s a relief to encounter a story in which the supposed plot is so easy to understand and basic that it risks losing the audience in an attempt to tell a more delicate, complicated story — the story behind the story — flush with all the emotive sap, scintillating to the core, that makes its way when the cipher is discovered.