Sin La Habana, the award winning narrative feature, exceptionally written and directed by Kaveh Nabatian, who also wrote the original music, is a beautifully layered film that completely engages from the opening shot to the uncertain ending. Sin La Habana is enjoying its New York premiere as the Centerpiece film at the New York Jewish Film Festival 2022. The NYJFF 2022 is being presented live and virtually from January 12-25, 2022. For tickets and scheduling see the last paragraph of this review.
The haunting, profound, poetic cinematography by Juan Pablo Ramirez, and the acutely thoughtful editing by Sophie Leblond intrigues us to the story arc of a Cuban ballet dancer and his lawyer girlfriend who loathe La Habana, Cuba. The city of Havana (in Spanish Habana) holds little promise for them, amidst the broken down buildings, squalid impoverished settings and lack of progress evidenced from Fidel Castro’s dictatorship and the decades long U.S. embargo. Leo and Sara envision a better life for themselves elsewhere, but their first world destination country in a time of global immigration restrictions leaves their only route of escape to be marriage to foreigners.
Leonardo (the excellent ballet dancer/actor Yonah Acosta Gonzalez) is the best dancer in the company where he performs, but he can’t catc,h a break for the star role as Romeo because of his “lack of humility,” says the director of the company whom he accuses of racism, and who fires him after he curses the director out. His girlfriend Sara, who is a daughter of Orisha (both Leo and Sara are practitioners of the West African religion of Babalawo which in Cuba resembles Santeria or Vodun) is as ambitious as Leo. Their high expectations and confidence in themselves lead them away from La Habana to achieve material success and new identities, though it will mean leaving their cultural heritage back in La Habana. Their decision is filled with risks, isolation and heartbreak; but with each other, they believe new possibilities are at their fingertips with their talents and skills.
We note that throughout Sin La Habana, Leo always prays and keeps in touch with his faith, practicing it as best he can through his memory when he lives in Canada, “without the influences of La Habana,” the music of the ceremonies, the rituals and the divination which at the beginning of the film he relies upon for guidance. Through flashbacks of Leo’s religious practice in La Habana, Nabatian reveals the importance of Leo’s faith every time he endures a setback on the journey to his dreams. To maintain the connection to hope, he has endowed an object of his goals, a beautiful, crystal clear, large marble as a symbol of affirmation that his dreams will come true.
Inspired and persuaded by Sara, Leo works their plan to leave La Habana by sparking the interest of Nasim (the Iranian Canadian Aki Yaghoubi) during his Salsa dance classes for tourists at a Parador (house in La Habana set up for the tourist trade). Leo looks for wisdom from his previous divination sessions with the Babalawo priests and strikes out for a relationship with Nasim, whom he keeps in touch with after she returns to Montreal, Canada.
Though Leo is not particularly interested in Sara’s plan to continue the seduction and marriage to Nasim, he communicates to Nasim even writing down the words Sara tells him that will touch Nasim’s heart. Sara’s words do encourage Nasim. She pays for Leo’s way to Montreal and his expenses until he can find a job with a ballet company. They live together in a house of Nasim’s friend which she has agreed to stay in and watch over while her friend is away. Eventually, Leo discovers Nasim’s backstory; she, too, is an artist; however, he remains unaware of her secret plan for her life.
As Leo and Nasim become closer, he tries to maintain his connection with Sara and his religion but it is difficult and Nasim is opposed to him practicing it, though she says it’s because he can’t mess anything up in the house of her friend. While Sara waits for him to earn enough money to send for her, she fears he will disappear in Montreal into a new life with his new girlfriend Nasim. Leo’s fortune changes and he experiences a setback after he bombs out of dance auditions, first with a ballet company, then with a maverick, new wave dance company. At a club with Nasim, he meets a fellow Cuban who hooks him up with a job and a plan to bring over Sara by marrying her off.
At this point complications arise and the risk that both Sara and Leo take intensifies. Leo meets up with Nasim’s parents and runs into racist attitudes from Nasim’s father who is disappointed that his daughter didn’t stay with her X husband who she divorced because he abused her. Nasim seeks another life away from the strict upbringing of her parents and the types of potential husbands that she would meet at the synagogue. Not only is Leo exciting, he is the epitome of the opposite of her former husband; her rebellion pleases her and she intends to make that rebellion permanent, unbeknownst to Leo, her parents and her siblings.
Meanwhile, Sara, marries Julio (Leo’s friend) and goes to Montreal. Leo and Sara see each other. Upset by Leo’s long time away from the house, Nasim turns detective and discovers Leo’s mail exchanges to Sara. Through Nasim’s expert detective work she discovers Sara is in Montreal. Meanwhile, Leo has lost his symbolic dream token, his pure marble which signifies that perhaps he has subverted his culture, his dream and the individual he wishes to be via his faith. All three stand on a precipice with no way forward except to plunge into uncertainty stoked by each other who they eventually must confront.
Nabatian’s screenplay realized through Ramirez’s cinematic ingenuity and Le Blond’s editing of close-ups, blurred montages of color, black and white shots of Leo dancing solo, contrasted with closeups of each of the characters provide an ethereal connection with this cultural world we are not familiar with. The director’s vision is fascinating, beautiful and surreal, as he reflects the minds of the individuals, especially Leo’s struggles at defining himself in place and time. The director also gradually reveals the plots of each of the individuals separate and apart from each other. Highlighting their perspectives and relationship to each other, the result is always surprising along the arc of each of the character’s developments.
The music throughout is lyrical, the rituals of Babalawo are rhythmic and the dance scenes are engaging. All of these musical and ritualistic scenes contrasted with the classical ballet add to the haunting portraits of Sara, Leo and Nasim who pursue their own journeys. We empathize with the paths Leo and Sara have chosen as they try to settle far from La Habana, carried by their hopes and memories. Likewise, the scene where Nasim is at her sister’ son’s Briss is revelatory; we empathize with Nasim’s plight as she must deal with her father’s viewpoint of her divorce and present partner, Leo. The characters’ journeys are wonderfully manifested by the performances, the cinematic compositions of each frame, the editing, music, overall design, all with a nod to Nabatian’s direction.
Nabatian’s artistry coupled with the talented crafting by Ramirez and Leblond and the actors’ heart-felt performances create a memorable film deserving of it awards. It is being shown in person at the Walter Reade Theater (165 West 65th St.) at Lincoln Center, Monday, January 17, 4:00pm. This is definitely a must see. For tickets and scheduling to the New York Jewish Film Festival go to their website at: https://www.filmlinc.org/festivals/new-york-jewish-film-festival/