Friday, 3 December 2010

'Chico & Rita' review:

It has taken a long time, but in the UK we seem to be catching up with the likes of Japan and France when it comes to taking animated films seriously. For years animated films were almost always children's films and were routinely dismissed by critics and cinephiles. Eyebrows were raised when, in 1991, Disney's 'Beauty and the Beast' was (quite deservedly) nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. Flash forward to 2010 and Disney's 'Up' was nominated for the same honour without the same murmurings of dissent. (In fact that film made many critics end of year "best film" lists.) Whilst those two Disney films are most certainly aimed at children (albeit with adult themes), it is no longer impossible to find animated films aimed at older audiences in UK cinemas, even if it isn't yet widespread. Earlier this year 'The Illusionist', a slow and poignant (and mostly silent) French film, did fairly well here playing mostly to adults. And now 'Chico & Rita', a sexually explicit, 15-rated Spanish animation, has been released in the UK to general acclaim.

By "sexually explicit" I really only mean that 'Chico & Rita' has a couple of sex scenes and some female nudity, deemed "strong sex" by the BBFC. Presumably this was because the next certificate down is a '12A' (the same rating as the latest 'Harry Potter' film) and the body wanted to make it clear that this is not intended as a film for children. This must be the rationale as compared to live action films the scenes of love-making in 'Chico & Rita' are fairly tame. But what makes this Spanish animation a movie for adults is not the tasteful sexual content, but rather the fact that there is really nothing here for children. There is no comedy relief and, save for one brief chase sequence, there is no "action". Instead this is a real love story, filled with all the melancholy that can bring. It is a colourful film of vitality and also a tale of regret and near tragedy.

'Chico & Rita' is partly told in flashback as an old man named Chico, living alone in a small and squalid apartment in a run down part of modern Havana, recalls his time as a virtuoso pianist as he falls for a beautiful singer named Rita. This love story is set against a backdrop of the vibrant and exciting nightlife that typified pre-revolution Havana in the 1940s (at least for visiting American playboys) with the film set to the rhythms of Latin jazz. Soon the duo form a popular musical double-act, but Chico is a bit of a cad and he loses Rita due to his drinking and womanising. Soon she is whisked away to New York City to become a major singer and even a star of MGM musicals, leaving Chico behind. Chico then sells his piano and pursues her in the hope of rekindling their love. As you can probably guess from the fact that the film is told in flashback by a sad man living alone, things don't go especially well and the couple are again separated by the cruelty of fate.

The film's beautiful animation is, from the looks of it, mostly done on computer but given the appearance of traditional animation (à la 'Waltz With Bashir'). The use of computers allows of a very fluid style of direction, that has much more in common with live action than animation - perhaps owing to the fact that the film's co-director Fernando Trueba comes from live action film (whilst the film's other director Javier Mariscal is a designer and not a filmmaker by trade). What the use of animation allows is great period detail, as the film recreates not only 40s Havana and New York, but also Paris. It also enables Chico to meet with long dead legends of music, such as Charlie Parker and Chano Pozo (to whose bloody death Chico bears horrified witness). Some of the film's details are (perhaps knowingly) anachronistic: for example although the Broadway show version of 'On the Town' debuted in 1944, the popular Gene Kelly film wouldn't be released until 1949, a year after Chico's voyage to New York upon which it is referenced (along with the tune of "New York, New York"). But regardless, these period details are a consistent pleasure - and there are lots of them to be seen.

The film's depiction of Cuba is also multi-faceted and nuanced. In the pre-revolutionary section we see Havana as a place that is fun and lively. It is a place full of possibility, where a talented singer or pianist can get noticed and make it in the USA. But also shown is the contrast extreme between the rich and poor, and racism, with the wealthy Americans who come to Havana shown going to racially restricted clubs which don't allow native Cubans. When Chico returns to Cuba amidst the revolution in 1959, things have changed again. Now we are shown the optimism Catro's revolution brought to Cuban people. Indeed Chico's first response seems to be positive. But before long he is told that his music is banned for being too American, which then shows us the limitations brought about by the move to communism. Similarly, the situation Chico finds himself in as an old man highlights the problems of modern Cuba - crumbling and stuck in the past. Whether you put that failure down to the extreme (and unreasonable) economic sanctions imposed on the island by the US or to the inherent failures of communism, it remains a reality which the film captures in detail.

'Chico & Rita' is a beautiful, bittersweet story about love, creativity and growing old, brought to life with vibrant, colourful animation. The period setting, the music, the atmosphere of the piece elevate what is already a really emotionally affecting story to even greater heights. It is a film which skillfully manages to romanticise the past it depicts without ignoring its shadier aspects. Overall it is a human story about well rounded characters, none of whom are really right or wrong, and all of whom are marked by their regrets and failings, but also by their unwavering belief in romantic love. A very good film which happens to be told via animation, hopefully proving we're ready for more.

'Chico & Rita' is rated '15' by the BBFC and is out in the UK on a limited release.

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