Every morning, the old man in the quiet drama Sin Alas opens a little folding table outside his splendidly dilapidated grand building. A writer who lived and loved through the Cuban Revolution, Luis Vargas now sells bric-a-brac that no one seems to buy. Stooped and faded, his white mustache drooping over his downturned mouth, he looks out on a Havana that’s teeming with compañeros and trembling with signs of upheaval that are telegraphed by newspaper headlines highlighting China in one column and President Obama in the other. The world that Luis helped build will soon be a memory.
In Sin Alas, American cruise ships have yet to drop anchor again in Havana Harbor. That’s the strength and appeal of this modestly scaled movie, which was written and directed by Ben Chace, an American who shot in Cuba before its new diplomatic relationship with the United States had taken root. The Cuba here is still the time capsule stocked with DeSoto cruisers, a crumbled infrastructure and paperwork filled out by hand. For Luis (Carlos Padrón, who’s Cuban, like the rest of the cast) memory itself is another time capsule, one that he gradually, somewhat disjointedly opens after reading about the death of an old lover, a dancer, Isabela (Yulisleyvís Rodriguez).
A memory story, Sin Alas follows Luis as he becomes reacquainted with his younger self, both as a young man (Lieter Ledesma) in 1967 and as a child living with his parents. Chace, working with a small crew that includes the talented cinematographer Sean Price Williams, persuasively recreates a vision of an earlier Havana filled with glamorous true believers, menacing military men and cocktail chatter about revolutionary aesthetics. When Luis picks up Isabela one rainy afternoon, the antiqued scene vaguely suggests the nostalgic reveries of Wong Kar Wai, even with the poster of a gun-toting Fidel Castro marking the 1959 overthrow of Batista’s Cuba.
Chace does his finest work with Padrón, and together director and actor create a portrayal of a man who, even as he’s stirred to action, seems increasingly burdened by his sentimental education. Chace’s attempts to piece together Luis’ present and past tend to obscure rather than clarify that portrait; even so, Luis and especially Havana hold your attention. The movie was inspired by Jorge Luis Borges’ short story The Zahir, about an item (a coin, in the story) that instills an obsession in all who come into contact with it. For Luis, Isabela was an obsession who dazzled him and consumed him, and, finally, like so many ideals, become impossible to hold onto.
Cast: Carlos Padrón, Mario Limonta, Yulisleyvís Rodriguez, Lieter Ledesma Alberto, Verónica Lynn.
Writer-director: Ben Chace.
A Franklin Avenue Films release. Running time: 90 minutes. In Spanish with English subtitles. In Miami-Dade only: O Cinema Miami Beach.