Now that’s how you end a film festival!
Give the audience something to applaud. A sense of witnessing something momentous, an idea of being part of an epic journey, characters to root for: Give them the dandy Chico; give them the beautiful and feisty Rita. Give the audience the sensuous, quasi-erotic animated feature, Chico and Rita. The final film at the European Film Festival, Spain’s Chico and Rita is a love story set in Cuba and America. The film follows the on and off relationship of a couple— the eponymous characters. Their love story is told from 1948 through to present day. Chico, a pianist, meets the beautiful singer, Rita; through the help of his friend, Ramon, he convinces her to enter for a music competition with him which they win. A romance blossoms, but between a rich businessman, Ron who intends to make Rita a solo star and Chico’s cantankerous ex-girlfriend, Juanita they are separated as Rita is taken away to America, while Chico stays back in Cuba, depressed. He finds a way to America and an unlikely second phase of the romance begins, and abruptly ends when he is deported. But Cuba has changed. The little matter of Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution places an embargo on the public performance of jazz— branded as imperialistic. So an older Chico abandons music and spends his days shoe shining, which is the point at which we meet him, as the film proceeds to tell his story in flashbacks. Nominated at the 84th Academy Awards in the Best Animation category, the most arresting quality of Chico and Rita is its unselfconsciousness— an attribute it shares with eventual winner, Gore Verbinski’s Rango. The film handles its unconventional traits with confidence: animated feature length pictures, (probably due to its historical affiliation with children,) do not show material that can be interpreted as erotic but Chico and Rita not only shows the breasts, nipples and the pubic hair of a woman during and after sex, but handles it like these are just another detail on a prop. The manner of the animation is similar to those drawings you find on Calypso drinks evoking the Caribbean, which is at first disconcerting to the eye used to conventional animation but it soon settles, giving the love story at its center attention. The music propels and is a side story- the history of jazz music, its growth, its Cuban music influences and its restriction by politics is a subplot and a beautiful soundtrack that can stand on its own. Jazz enthusiasts will find it a great pleasure. Political history also runs through it: racism in America and Hollywood— Rita is bristled when a woman mentions the risk in featuring a black Latino as lead in a Hollywood feature, her career comes to an end when she speaks about racism in public; Chico is easily deported on drug charges; Chico’s benefactor is shot in an American bar when a drug transaction goes awry. But all of these are glossed over, Chico and Rita is a love story first and most importantly. Chico and Rita recalls that other famous fictional romance— that between Ricky and Ilsa in 1942’s Casablanca and the song Rita/Lily is as pivotal to the former film as As Time Goes By was to the latter; and often the character Ramon has lines that suggest he is a stand-in for Rick’s friend, the pianist Sam. That is perhaps a coincidence and not a drawback. If there is any detraction, it will have to be that the concluding half of the film does live up to the earlier, heady moments of the film. And while, Chico and Rita was definitely not the best of the screened films at this year’s festival, it did have sufficient charm to induce applause at the last kiss, suggesting that as far as cinematic crowd-pleasers go, it sufficed.PS: This entry concludes the ping’s review cum coverage of the fifth edition of the European Film Festival, held in Abuja from May 10th to 23rd. As previously stated, some of the reviews have been carried in the Guardian and Thisday newspapers.