Documentary Review: Beautiful Cuba as the “Epicentro” of human “dystopia”

“Epicentro” is a lovely new tone poem to Cuba, as it is now, the Cuba behind the propaganda from within and without.

Havana is shown in all its worn, grimy impoverished glory and the people in all their vibrant, increasingly outspoken and testy semi-isolation. Long abandoned sugar refineries that once supplied Coca-Cola and crumbling housing dating back to the Spanish American War, the Eisenhower era American cars and the Soviet era trains, famed in many a travelogue, blend into this impressionistic sketch of the island After Fidel.

European writer-director-narrator Hubert Sauper (“We Come as Friends,” “Darwin’s Nightmare”) uses the idea of “Cuba as the epicenter of three dystopian chapters in human history — slavery, colonialism and the global projection of power.”

And the film, although loosely organized and more concerned with capturing arresting images, pays lip service to each of those.

The main focus is children, as we see Cubanschoolkids study dance and entertained by a silent film lecture/magic show that packs in the prehistoric landmarks of cinema — “The Kiss,” Melies “A Trip to the Moon” — and the earliest American “propaganda” films, about the destruction of the U.S.S. Maine and American intervention/invasion that chased out the Spanish colonizers.

The lesson? That history and media can be “faked.” And by the way, the “norteamericanos” “liberated Cuba,” no matter what happened between the two cultures in the 120 years since, no matter what you’ve been taught in school.

“Lies! All lies!” the little children shout, in Spanish with English subtitles.

Sauper follows European tourists into swank hotels and bars, and around town on a tour bu. And he visits apartments one could only call hovels. The gulf between “tourist” Havana and the real city is underlined when he stages an attempt to have a guest play the “daddy” of two adorable, neatly turned-out but dark-skinned kids so that they can swim in the four-star hotel’s pool.

“Not allowed, not allowed” the staff insist. With a camera present, they lose that argument. Racism, a vestige of slavery, is as evident there as anywhere else.

And Sauper spends a lot of time in conversation with women who seem to be sex workers, but who are outspoken critics of both U.S./Cuba relations, and of the limits of the lives in a country too poor to thrive without their former Soviet underwriters, and still under an American embargo on trade.

As “impressionistic” implies, it’s more a movie of impressions, quick sketches of street scenes — a photographer intruding on poor, private lives, captured by a cinematographer watching him do it, an old woman, singing along to “Bohemian Rhapsody” on her cell-phone in a back-alley bar so battered and timeworn that Columbus’s crew could have knocked back drinks there.

The children are given the screen time to recite long discourses on Cuban history and what they still don’t know about the outside world, just as isolated as their parents and grandparents were.

There’s just enough obesity, skin disease and bad teeth to make you question the marvels of the country’s famed socialized medicine. But the longer they’re kept from tourism and industrial investment and the further the Soviet subsidies drift into the past, that’s probably breaking down, too.

But whatever happens in the future, and there’s always a hint of “Cuba before it’s ruined by the US” to such films, Sauper has captured the island in the last days of Castroism (Fidel’s death is reported on TV) — lovely, crumbling, defiant and myopic, a “paradise” that has been tormented by the worst human history has had to offer.

MPAA Rating: unrated, profanity, alcohol

Credits: Written, directed and narrated by  Hubert Sauper. A Kino Lorber release.

Running time: 1:48

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