Chico & Rita (2010)

Genres - Drama  |   Sub-Genres - Musical Drama, Musical Romance, Period Film, Romantic Drama  |   Release Date - Feb 10, 2012 (USA - Limited)  |   Run Time - 96 min.  |   Countries - Spain, United Kingdom  |   MPAA Rating - NR
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Review by Nathan Southern

The animated musical drama Chico & Rita tells the story of two Cuban lovers over the course of 60 years. When we first see the titular pair, it's 1948 -- he's a jazz pianist and accompanist, and she is a sultry vocalist specializing in Cuban ballads. Both reside in Havana, but Rita harbors dreams of relocating to America and establishing herself as a musical icon. As the story rolls forward, various external forces repeatedly attempt to tear the paramours apart, but their devotion to one another abides. The specific twists of the narrative matter little, for co-directors Fernando Trueba, Tono Errando, and Javier Mariscal have lifted the outlines from countless 1940s Hollywood romantic melodramas, to such a degree that many developments can be foreseen long before they transpire.

Stylistically, Chico & Rita finds a unique and perfect visual idiom for Cuba, much as The Triplets of Belleville did for France and Persepolis did for Iran. The film looks as though traditional Havana poster art, with its bold outlines and flat shadings, has sprung to animated life. The results are revelatory not simply for their originality in a cinematic context, but for the sophisticated and complex thematic role that the style plays in a larger equation set up by Trueba and company. Namely, the familiar story beats and the evocations of indigenous murals go hand in hand to establish a transcendent onscreen depiction of myth that stands out in radiant contrast to a more realistic backdrop.

Therefore, it isn't accidental that the visually flat characters exist amid stunningly ornate landscapes, as minutely detailed as anything in contemporary animation. Similarly, it was a calculated choice to posit the almost iconic story against a vivid historical background, populated by animated re-creations of real-life jazz figures such as Tito Puente, Woody Herman, and Ben Webster. In fact, the fictitious narrative runs parallel to a chronological history of jazz, so that as we follow Chico and Rita's paths repeatedly intersecting and diverging, we also get a glimpse of various jazz styles evolving and emerging with the shifting time frame. The ever-present jazz strains on the soundtrack also mesh perfectly with the torchy quality of the central romance.

The picture reaches a narrative plateau with the development that drives home its central theme most effectively: a substory in which Chico and a male friend travel to New York City, encounter the hell-raising musician Chano Pozzo, and experience life on the wild side -- a rough joyride with Pozzo through the wintry streets of Manhattan. Appropriately, this sequence ends on December 2, 1948, as Chico and his buddy witness Pozzo's brutal murder at a Harlem speakeasy following a drug deal gone bad. The intersection of the factual and the fictitious here is vital: Recalling E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime, Trueba, Errando and Mariscal succeed at using this sequence to investigate how history and myth intersect, as well as build a running commentary on how one fosters the other.

In addition to Chico & Rita's many aforementioned strengths, it feels refreshing to see an animated picture so squarely targeted to an older demographic. The film's marvelous thematic profundities would go far over the heads of youngsters, but other elements also make it singularly inappropriate for small fries -- such as occasional bursts of shocking violence and an erotic softcore lovemaking scene between Chico and Rita that leaves little to the imagination. This isn't entirely original, of course -- in recent years, we've seen a handful of American and European-produced movies which defy assumptions that the animated form is most suitable for children. But seldom have any of them pushed the edge of the envelope so satisfyingly far.