Luis Vargas is as broken-down as the city he lives in: Havana, Cuba. Inside, he has been dead for years, ever since the great love affair of his life ended badly. However, news of his very former lover’s demise spurs him to action in small but significant ways. Memory is exquisitely painful in Ben Chace’s Sin Alas (trailer here), which opens today in New York at the Metrograph.
Chace’s narrative is sort of a riff on Borges’ short story “The Zahir,” but do not judge yourself too harshly if you fail to immediately pick-up on it. However, you should recognize the streets of Havana in all their crumbling decrepitude. Sin Alas was the first American production officially allowed to shoot in Cuba since 1959, so what Chace lost in conveniences (like the ability to watch dailies) he gained in authenticity.
This is indeed Cuba, where people regularly risk their lives to come to America and those who remain use the word “Revolutionary” as hollow but mandatory affectation. That includes Vargas, who was actually born a class enemy but stayed after the revolution to “see where things would go.” Despite his suspect background, Vargas became a prominent cultural reporter, which is how he met Isabella Munoz, a ballerina married to a high-ranking officer in the new regime.
Since he is one of the few people in Munoz’s orbit who can talk about art and culture without curling his lip in contempt, a forbidden romance quickly percolates between her and Vargas. Of course, the stakes are high. Her jealous husband could probably murder Vargas with impunity (especially considering Che did away with the bourgeoisie practice of holding trials). Love is not running smoothly for Vargas’s current housemates either, thanks to Katrina’s severe grandmother, who refuses to let Yuniesky, her pedicab driving husband, live with the rest of the family.
In many ways, the dead past continues to corrode the present throughout Sin Alas, just as it often does in Borges’ oeuvre. Working on Super 16m, Chace and accomplished indie cinematographer Sean Price Williams capture all the decaying grunginess of modern day Cuba with their washed-out looking palette. They also frame wide shots of the city-by-rooftop that evoke the look of Rio’s favelas. Yet, most striking are the flashbacks to 1967, which have a wonderfully stylish black-and-white noir look. We sort of wish these interludes would never end, but alas . . .
The native Cuban cast always look legit, because they are, but their collective skill level is a bit inconsistent. At least Carlos Padrón is rock-solid as Vargas, while Mario Limonta steals scene after scene as the former journalist’s crony. They have a terrific sequence together scouring Havana for old-timers who might know the tune literally haunting Vargas’s dreams.
It is sort of surprising Cuba okayed Sin Alas, because Munoz’s husband is no people’s hero. However, it is quite potent as a tale of lost, lingering love (although the Katrina-Yuniesky subplot is much less compelling). Aruán Ortiz’s distinctive classically-flavored Afro-Cuban soundtrack further heightens the elegiac vibe. It is all a rather impressive production, especially considering its limited resources. Recommended for those with a taste for nostalgic melancholy, Sin Alas opens today (5/4) in New York, at the Metrograph.