Sin Alas is a confounding film. On the one hand it’s a wonderful look into a culture that we don’t particularly see, at times searingly acted, and an admirable attempt at surrealism. On the other hand, it is an, at times, incomprehensible mixture of memory and modern day that goes off the rails.
The movie, shot in Havana on 16mm is about Luis Vargas, an old writer who has lived quite a life. When a former lover (the ballerina wife of a military commander) of his dies, he begins to see visions of her and has to wrestle with his last decisions and come to terms with the choices he has made in his life. Meanwhile, his granddaughter struggles to accept her husband, who has previously been MIA, trying to build them a better life for themselves while her boss shows that he might be interested in more than her work ethic.
The parts of Sin Alas that work, derive themselves from character conflict, like all good stories do. The juxtaposition of the Luis’ journey and the young parents’ struggle is an interesting one. We watch the young people struggle with the weight of their past history, its affect on their families, and how it is stymieing their future. Meanwhile, Luis is look back to his past and struggling to make sense of how it’s affecting his current situation. That’s some rich thematic storytelling, and during the second half of the movie, it snaps into focus in an interesting and thoughtful way.
The difficulty then with Sin Alas is not that you won’t understand the movie thematically, but that its circular construction and weird editing choices keep you from fully engaging with the tale. The first half of this movie is a slog, and though it does settle down around the halfway mark, it’s tough to extol many virtues of the writing when it takes so much to get there. Additionally, as the movie begins to build I found myself feeling as though I were watching two movies, that were both equally deserving of having their stories told, but that at times didn’t really work together.
Visually the movie is delightful. You can tell a few minutes in the director is enjoying playing with form and the way the apparitions and flashbacks are inserted into the narrative and are shot is really intriguing. Many props should be given to Ben Chace, as this is the first American film to be directed and produced in Cuba since 1959, for capturing the rhythms of the city in an organic way. Even when the movies seems to go off the rails, he can always ground it in the culture and visuals of the city. There’s a kinetic energy that Havana gives off and the movie uses it quite well.