Movie Review: Chico & Rita
The Charlotte Observer
Every decade or so, someone proves animation can tell a serious adult story. These films get acclaim from critics and neglect from audiences, then sink into obscurity. Soon, we’re back to talking pandas and cuddly dragons.
“Chico & Rita,” one of this year’s animated Oscar nominees, fits that bill – and it’s in Spanish, which further guarantees general public indifference. Catch it quickly, if you intend to see it onscreen at all.
And you should, if you love 20th-century American music. I say “American,” though jazz sounds in “Chico” reach us from Cuba. Those have mamboed and salsaed into our national consciousness, and the film shows some of the ways they got there.
It starts in almost-modern Havana, where aged Chico (Eman Xor Oña) shines shoes in a dusty street. An old song on a radio takes him back to 1948, when he was a prize-winning pianist in love with a sultry spitfire named Rita. (I know “sultry spitfire” is a stereotype for a Latin woman, especially onscreen, but that’s exactly how she’s depicted.)
Rita (Limara Meneses) floats in and out of Chico’s life as a singer, a muse and a bed partner, until a rich American promoter takes her back to New York to become the toast of the town. Chico and his easygoing manager, Ramón (Mario Guerra) follow, hoping to land jobs with bands.
The movie doesn’t shy away from sexual intimacy or violence: We see drummer Chano Pozo get gunned down in a Harlem bar fight, as he was in life in 1948 (allegedly over an argument regarding the quality of marijuana bought from his murderer).
The storytelling remains rudimentary and melodramatic, as it did in Fernando Trueba’s “Belle Epoque” (an inexplicable Oscar-winner in 1992 for best foreign film).
The script by director Trueba and Ignacio Martínez de Pisón doesn’t give much depth to the characters: Chico and Rita remain symbols, Ramón’s conflicting loyalties don’t get explored, and most white Americans are loud, rich, boorish and/or slimy.
Yet Mariscal’s illustrations, whether of depressed modern Havana or shimmering New York circa 1950, delight the eye. Cinematographers call their craft “painting with light,” and colors and shadows in this film come from a complex palette. (What a pity that the small white subtitles appear on them – sometimes illegibly – instead of a black border below the screen.)
The vivid music has the same kind of sweep. From Chico’s gentle musings at the keyboard to the drum-driven rhythms of Tito Puente, the soundtrack pulses catchily.
We get snatches of Woody Herman, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and other jazz greats, reminding us that music actually is the universal language. The people in “Chico & Rita” speak eloquently with their eyes and mundanely with their lips, but they communicate everything we need to know with their shoulders, hips and toes.