In Cuba, every building is dilapidated, but Jorge de los Rois’ home is particularly so. Perversely, he keeps making it worse and worse. Formerly one of Havana’s most exclusive luxury hotels, it is now a battered shell not even fit for squatters. However, de los Rios finds his reason for being bashing away at the walls and moldings in the dubious belief the pre-revolutionary owners left some great treasure somewhere within the guts of the structure. It is an increasingly lonely and Sisyphean existence documented (for lack of a better word) in Irene Gutiérrez Torres’ Hotel Nueva Isla (trailer here), which screens during MoMA’s 2015 Documentary Fortnight.
Once the Nueva Isla was a magnet for the city’s homeless population, but the unsound building has become too dangerous for all but the most desperate or committed squatters. Yet de los Rios continues to whack away. It is hard to speculate how monomaniacal he really is, given the narrative elements incorporated by Torres and her co-screenwriter and cinematographer Javier Labrador. Hopefully, the one-sided pillow talk mostly featuring de los Rios’ somewhat younger lover is entirely fictional, since he cannot be bothered to throw her the scantest of emotional bones. Still, the is something tragically compelling about him, sort of like Rinko Kikuchi’s character in Kumiko the Treasure Hunter, but about a thousand times less moving.
The symbolism of the broken down de los Rios and his broken down hotel are hard to miss. Betrayed by false promises and lean from poor nutrition, he is Cuba personified. There is simply no way to spin this fly-on-the-wall visit to the Nueva Isla as a positive for the genre. Yet, despite the added fictional veneer, HNI is a defiantly static film. Sometimes, it feels like watching the worst PBS handyman show ever: The New Socialist Workshop, starring Jorge de los Rios. This week, Jorge busts up debris with a hammer, just like last week, and the week before.
Without question, HNI makes Cuba look like an unremittingly crummy place to live. Since Torre and Labrador confine themselves to the Nueva Isla and rarely leave de los Rios’ side, the film necessarily feels claustrophobic. Nevertheless, wider concerns (such as the fate of his estranged son keen to try his luck with the desperate Florida crossing) occasionally manage to creep in.
Ironically, the treasure of Nueva Isla is right in front of his eyes, but de Los Rios cannot see it. The hotel once employed dozens if not hundreds of people and was a major multiplier for the neighborhood. It was something very valuable for many people, but now it is a wreck. Castro and his murderous ideology destroyed it well enough, but de los Rios keeps piling on.