I confess to having massive expectations for Chico and Rita. Not only do I love animation and it came highly recommended by people I respect, but I also completely fell for its directors, Fernando Trueba and Javier Mariscal, on BBC2’s the Culture Show. Plus I lived in Spain in the early nineties when Mariscal’s Bar-cel-ona logo and Olympic mascot, Cobi, were ubiquitous and, as boleros enjoyed a revival, Los Panchos played in every bar.
And on the whole I wasn’t disappointed. It’s a luscious, gorgeous film with a soundtrack (courtesy of Cuban composer Bebo Valdés) to die for and a humour I wasn’t expecting – in particular during the scenes in the tenement where Chico lives. The repartee amongst his neighbours provides some genuinely lol moments such as, for example, a neighbour defending his revolutionary credentials after criticising a power cut: ‘But I was reading Granma, and had just got to the interesting bit’!
Talking of translation (it took me a second to remember Granma is the official newspaper of the Cuban Communist Party and not just a variant of grandma) I’d have preferred to see Ramon’s advice to Chico that he’s ‘enchochado’ translated as ‘in lust’ rather than ‘in love’ – ‘chocho’ being a (non-offensive) term for the female genitals.
The scenes in the tenement also touch on another aspect of the film I liked – its politics are lightly worn but deeply felt. When the action switches to Rita’s career in the USA not only is the obvious target of racial segregation criticised, but there are also visual references to the less blatant racism of the exoticising of, amongst others, Josephine Baker and Carmen Miranda.
Blog on the box, however, calls Chico and Rita ‘one of the most profoundly moving films of the year, a heart-wrenching love story’ and I have to disagree. Although a feast for the senses, the narrative fails to grip. It’s unevenly paced and contains some check-your-watch longueurs. And, although I did shed three tears at the end (I counted), I was annoyed with myself for doing so.
But perhaps boleros always have prided themselves on being a triumph of sentiment over intellect: the style is the substance. As Trueba comments on the film’s website: ‘For me Chico & Rita is a song, a romantic song, a bolero. It’s the story of two young people in Cuba at the end of the 40s, and how life gets them together and separates them like in a song. It’s a film full of music and love and sensuality and colour.’
A paean to both directors’ passion for Cuba and its music, somewhat disappointingly Chico and Rita never felt more than the sum of its parts – as gorgeous as those parts were. As they’re passions I share it still earns 4 out of 5 stars, but if you want to be profoundly moved seek out Mary and Max.