Documentary Review: Charting the ebb and flow of US/Cuban relations through “Los Hermanos/The Brothers”

“Los Hermanos” is an engaging musical documentary about two Cuban brothers, star musicians, separated by the 62 year-old embargo the United States has imposed, to no positive effect, on the island nation.

Ilmar, the older brother, took up the violin as a child, and in the last years of the Cold War, went to the Soviet Union with his mother so that he could further his classical music studies as a young teen. He never moved back and eventually settled in New York and helped found The Harlem Quartet chamber music ensemble.

Aldo, six years younger, took up the piano in a country whose development and economy have remained stagnant for decades But he became a star jazz composer and musician, a teacher married to successful orchestral conductor, Daiana, all thanks to family and government support for classically trained musicians.

Although they stayed in touch and managed to meet, with extreme difficulty, here and there. It wasn’t until the Obama Administration started to thaw the relationship with Cuba that they could work together. The film charts this collaboration, which climaxed with a North American concert tour, sometimes playing as a duet, often with Aldo joining the Harlem Quartet for compositions of his or his brother’s creation.

But what happened after Obama left the White House of course changed all that.

The sons of a famous (in Cuba) composer, they were “condemned to be musicians,” their father Guido says with a laugh. Ilmar jokes about how he was “tricked” into taking up the violin when his father returned from an Eastern European tour with a junior-sized violin.

“Next thing I know, there’s some Russian in our apartment yelling at me,” Ilmar says with a laugh, remembering that first teacher in 1980s Havana.

The film skips back and forth, between New York and Havana, going on tour, filling in their history, charting each aspiring performer’s rise through competitions (Aldo studied in London for a bit) and noting, as many have before them, the economic disparity between lives in the US and those in Cuba.

“Los Hermanos” is at its best in showing us the difficult logistics of life in Havana. They were born into a performing arts family. But while musician mom had a Steinway, heaven help them all when it breaks and the embargo makes any fix impossible.

“There are only two (suitable) grand pianos in all of Cuba,” Aldo shrugs (mostly in Spanish with English subtitles, although he speaks English and the film is mostly in English). If he wants to play a concert, that takes a lot of planning and scheduling.

Government support for the arts peaked during the Soviet years, but the lingering embargo, with its travel restrictions, mean that artists who want real success and financial security have to travel abroad, travel that doesn’t include their most lucrative market — the United States.

The siblings make a congenial pair as they play their way into middle age. The joyous moments come on stage or in group meals in Havana, where every utensil turns into an instrument since every dinner guest is a musician.

It’s an “interview” heavy documentary, traveling and chatting with the brothers, having them tell their stories and explain their history. “Los Hermanos” turns somewhat more intimate thanks to fly-on-the-wall moments, watching Aldo teach a young concert pianist on one of the two serviceable grand pianos, this one in an empty concert hall.

The bittersweet sets in over the separation, the ordeal just getting permission to travel and the limitations put on that travel by a 1959 embargo that outlived Castro even if it never forced the country to give up its communist dictatorship.

Through it all, you can’t help but get the feeling that like slowly-decaying corners of Havana, we’re looking at the end times for decrepitude. Someday, we’re going to look back on all this arbitrary political pandering to the far right Cuban expats and the politicians who curry their favor as one of the colossal blunders in American political history.

With a little luck we’ll look back and laugh about it, maybe as heartily as Ilmar and Aldo do when they join a Chautauqua, New York outdoor concert that climaxes with an orchestra performing Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture.” The audience, including “Los Hermanos,” give it that big finish its famous for by blowing up and popping paper bags to simulate the cannon fire in the finale.

MPA Rating: unrated

Cast: Aldo López-Gavilán, Ilmar Gavilán, Daiana Garcia and Guido López-Gavilán

Credits: Directed by Marcia Jarmel, Ken Schneider. A First Run release.

Running time: 1:24

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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