The anthology film, in its successes, is so often a serendipitous art; after all, how much control can any one contributor have over the project as a whole? This fact is painfully reminded to us in Cuban travelogue 7 Days in Havana, a visually dazzling but thematically sparse tableau.
Quite possibly a case of too many cooks spoiling the broth, even if those cooks are by-and-large first-rate film directors, 7 Days of Havana aims disappointingly low with its ambition, telling tales that either feel derived from soap opera, or fail to adequately convey the aspect of Cuban culture that they so desperately want to.
With each story comprising one day of the titular week, Benicio Del Toro’s “El Yuma” is first up to bat, starring Josh Hutcherson as a film student enjoying the city’s sights before he begins class. Following that, Pablo Trapero (Carancho) depicts despondent Serbian filmmaker Emir Kusturica attending a film festival; Julio Médem (Sex and Lucia) features an up-and-coming singer struggling between her career and the men in her life; Elia Suleiman (The Time That Remains) shadows a lonely, wordless man as he awaits a meeting with the President; Gaspar Noé (Irreversible) intimately examines a bizarre Cuban ritual; Juan Carlo Tabio (Strawberry and Chocolate) tackles family, as a mother tries to get some industrious baking done, and finally, Laurent Cantet (The Class) follows an elderly woman who is renovating her home in the name of the Virgin Mary.
While an opening dialogue suggests a potent engagement with Cuba’s place in the world, noting the weak presence of the dollar, the trade embargo, and the worldwide economic crisis, it’s a shame that the overall result is so effortless and hollow. As a touristic jaunt around Havana, it does at least provide some pleasantly homely sights, and plenty of beautiful women, brought to life by Daniel Aranyo and Diego Dussuel’s vibrant cinematography.
The narrative meat of the stories themselves, however, relies far too much on convenience and moreover, contrivance, as well as leaning on regional stereotypes. A few of the stories even retain the unsavoury feel of an over-the-top telenovela, emotionally shallow and hopelessly melodramatic.
Furthermore, what should move spryly through the streets of Havana instead gets bogged down mid-way in a pair of near-wordless stories posted back-to-back, padding out the runtime to an exhaustively long 129-minutes. The placement of these stories creates a half-hour thematic chasm of grand visuals with little context that would seem to make them interesting.
As with most anthology films, it eventually tries to infuse a grander meaning, though not by suturing its stories together under one collective theme, but rather, taking the cheaper option of interlinking the stories with recurring characters. Without a grasp on the basics, however – that is, the individual stories themselves – it feels arbitrary and forced, a desperate effort to give the collection a more cosmic significance.
Unlike past anthology films exploring New York and Paris, there was a grand opportunity – and even an expectation – to educate and inform, given Havana’s relative obscurity to most viewers. Taking this silver platter and placing upon it maudlin melodrama, stilted manners comedy, and an overabundance of mood-less airiness is a grave mistake. Even with six world-class directors, it all amounts to a pretty uninteresting collage of Cuban life.
7 Days in Havana is on limited release from Friday.