Monday, January 24, 2011

Sundance ’11: Ticket to Paradise

In 1993, Cuban youths liked their head-banging music just as much as their American counterparts—possibly more so. Of course, the underground scene was decidedly dangerous thanks to frequent police rousts and the ravages of AIDS. The latter will take on ironic significance in Cuban filmmaker Gerardo Chijona Valdes’ Ticket to Paradise (trailer here), which screens during the 2011 Sundance Film Festival.

Cuba is no workers’ paradise for Eunice. Sexually abused by her widower father while her teacher turns a blind eye, she has reached her breaking point. After a physical altercation with the old man, she runs away from home in hopes of finding shelter with her grown sister. Quickly running out of money, she falls in with a trio of pill-pushing metalheads on their way to Havana. Alejandro, their informal leader, has told their butch girlfriend-with-benefits they are going for a concert, but he has different, rather foolish and shocking plans once they arrive.

Truthfully, the first half of Paradise is pretty compelling, as Eunice and her new found friends navigate the seedy underbelly of Communist Cuba. However, Chijona Valdes springs the horrifying twist too soon, leaving at least a full third of the film to wallow in his characters’ how-low-can-they-go suffering and depravity.

If Paradise was intended as pro-regime propaganda, it does not even come close to working. Throughout the film, the entire country looks like it is falling apart, while the law of the jungle seems to rule among the people. At least it faithfully propagates the myth of Cuba’s crackerjack health system, which must have been how the film was approved by some clueless apparatchik.

Miriel Cejas deserves considerable credit for her work as Eunice, enduring all manner of on-screen humiliations. It is not her fault that Paradise’s final scenes ring so false. (Instead, the blame lies solely with the manipulative story.) By and large, her three primary compatriots are also quite convincing, looking like they came straight off the streets themselves.

Chijona Valdes certainly creates a visceral atmosphere of menace and decay (of course, it is not like any of his locations had been refurbished since 1993). His indulgence in lurid melodrama simply undermines what could have been a rare work of gritty Cuban naturalism. Interesting but ultimately just too much everything, Paradise screens again during the 2011 Sundance Film Festival this Tuesday (1/25), Thursday (1/27), and Saturday (1/29).