Fernando Trueba, Javier Mariscal, & Tono Errando
Review by Victoria Large
Posted on 06 March 2012
Source DVD Screener
Recent Academy Award nominee Chico & Rita opens with a weathered, melancholy man listening to “Yesterday’s Melodies,” a Cuban radio show specializing in jazz classics. It’s an appropriate opening for a film that draws on vintage music and charming nostalgia for much of its energy and appeal, and it’s easy to be drawn into the man’s story. He’s Chico, a jazz pianist who found – and lost – the woman of his dreams in late forties Cuba, eventually following her to America but never winning her back. The object of his affection, Rita, is a sensuous singer, and we buy their passionate romance mainly because of the lovely music that they quite literally make together.
The powerful music is coupled with vibrant, graceful animation that complements the subject matter well. We see Chico and Rita lock eyes even when they’re dancing with other people (an image that is in some ways emblematic of their entire affair), and it’s appropriately beguiling. That isn’t the only striking image. Later, Rita, bathed in blue, cries a single tear over her lost possibilities with Chico, and when we arrive in New York City, it’s a believably glamorous wonderland that dizzies its new arrivals with a labyrinth of neon signs. My favorite bit in the film is a brightly colored, Old Hollywood-tinged dream sequence in which Chico finds himself chasing after Rita only to be foiled by Humphrey Bogart in full Casablanca costuming. (There’s also a great nod to On the Town in this sequence.)
At its best, Chico & Rita reminds us of the possibilities of animation. If the film’s casual sensuality and nudity surprises, it’s only because we still aren’t completely used to animated films that are strictly targeted at adults. But Chico & Rita’s easygoing appeal throws down a challenge to future filmmakers to test their own boundaries as well as their audience’s expectations.
Yet though the music and the visuals shine, other critics have suggested that Chico & Rita’s storyline is a bit wispy, and I don’t disagree. Despite a worthy setup involving passionate and troubled lovers, and a historically rich backdrop (Chico and Rita must navigate racism in America and Chico is also confronted with revolution in Cuba), the film keeps its story relatively simple and its runtime relatively short. It resists exploring some of its most potent themes more deeply.
I also confess to being a bit let down that Rita, the blue-green-eyed, hourglass-shaped beauty voiced by Limara Meneses, meets with almost nothing but unhappiness in her pursuit of individual stardom. For such a seemingly fierce character, she is perhaps undone too quickly. (Her name put me in mind of Rita Hayworth, who concealed her Spanish heritage to become an All-American pinup, and her journey through Hollywood might have been a film in itself.)
However, though the film, which was helmed by Tono Errando, Javier Mariscal, and Calle 54 director Fernando Trueba, may miss a few opportunities, it nevertheless makes for a uniquely evocative viewing experience and a most welcome step outside the norm. Its bittersweet story suggests that life can be full of unexpected shifts; that it can be irretrievably broken and profoundly beautiful at the same time, and the film’s whirl of memorable imagery and emotive music is worth getting carried away by.