Every so often, a tiny film will sneak up on you and render your heart fuller than it already was. Sergio Navaretta’s “The Cuban” is such a movie, an independent drama with no larger ambition than to enchant you with its authentic zest for life. Steeped in the richness of Cuban culture and its community of eclectic musicians, this twofold character study teaches us that the past is filled with beautiful moments worth remembering. Veteran actor Louis Gossett Jr. and newcomer Ana Golja lead this multicultural narrative with stirring affection.
In a breakout role that beams with effortless star magnitude, Golja plays Mina, a former Afghani child refugee who lives with her aunt (Shohreh Aghdashloo) in New York while attending university. Mina’s pre-med studies lead her to volunteer at the nursing home her aunt – former doctor turned administrative director – works at. There Mina befriends a patient named Luis Garcia (Gossett Jr.), who she comes to learn was once a famous Cuban jazz musician known as “El Guitarista.” In the later stages of Alzheimer’s disease while also battling dementia, Garcia begs for comfort in his final years. The uptight and regimented orderlies of the facility don’t seem to get the memo, which in turn fosters hostility in Garcia. He refuses to eat their bland food, deprived of the flavor and spice that his young life once offered him.
Mina turns Luis’s depressing circumstances around with a cheerful disposition. Her earnest effort to improve his livelihood awakens her curiosity about cultures beyond her own. This includes dating a boy (Giacomo Giannoti) who is outside the Muslim faith. Mina’s aunt, Bano Ayoub, begins to notice the change and fears her niece is squandering the opportunities America provides. Having escaped a violent upbringing in Afghanistan that offered little prospects for young women, Bano feels there is no room for ingratitude. Eventually the generational divide on priorities becomes a heated argument at the dinner table, featuring stunning center-frame cinematography by Celiana Cárdenas. Capturing the talented actresses’ private yet intense blowout from a respectful distance – and with minimal lighting — is one of the better stylistic choices of the year.
Gossett, Jr. gives a near-wordless performance but uses physicality to communicate both internal discomfort and fleeting delight. Eating Cuban dishes that Mina prepares for Luis while listening to his favorite Cuban jazz records provides soulful restoration. Seeing his attitude completely turn around underscores how important it is to let an elderly patient guide their own healthcare when grappling with a terminal illness. Moreover, Alessandra Piccione’s script demonstrates how memories can be unlocked when triggered by familiar surroundings. Music and culture is so intrinsically tied to the soul that when reintroduced, it can revive a long-lost part of someone.
While “The Cuban” rides a sincere wave of sentimentality that is hard to shake free, its use of flashbacks are more problematic than effective. Remembering Luis’s former crush, Elena, in the form of Mina is a bizarre decision that mistakes his true lust and comes off inappropriate. Casting snafu aside, the sweet tale of friendship ends with a satisfying feeling of closure for one character, yet a lingering desire to continue with another. “The Cuban” is the rare indie drama that almost begs for a sequel due to the compelling nature of its lovable cast.