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Viva la vida

7 Days in Havana (2012)

Rezo Films

Portmanteau anthology films — not exactly fashionable, but never quite extinct either — enjoy a shot in the arm every few years from producer Emmanuel Benbihy's Cities of Love franchise, the cycle that has so far produced "Paris, je t'aime" and "New York, I Love You." But Mr. Benbihy's all-star bite-size format feels like a shallower option than the approach tried in "7 Days in Havana," which lets seven diverse directors get their teeth into longer-form stories all penned by the same Cuban screenwriter, Leonardo Padura. The aim is to get under the skin of a city with enough juice in its veins to power any seven stories and another 70 to boot.

And to an extent, it works. Among the directors, only Juan Carlos Tabio is in fact Cuban, so a strong outsider's perspective creeps in; and even Mr. Tabio's "Dulce amargo" involves a young singer who eventually departs on a raft in the general direction of Florida. The most blatant tourist's eye view is Benicio del Toro's sweetly funny "El Yuma," a story of a visiting young American actor (Josh Hutcherson) whose first night in the city is a string of parties, language barriers, lapsed Russian infrastructure and compassionate strangers.

More ambiguous, left-field approaches pack more of a punch. Gaspar Noé's wordless "Ritual" — of a young girl undergoing a Santeria ceremony much like an exorcism when her lesbianism is discovered — avoids handing the viewer an easy judgment on a plate and is mostly shot in near-darkness. The teenager's passive submission leaves all sorts of questions open about her own wishes, and the whole segment is like peering into something intended to be entirely private.

The film's light relief plays out entirely in public, when Elia Suleiman directs himself in "Diary of a Beginner," as a visiting Palestinian stuck in the temporal limbo that only one of Fidel Castro's endless televised addresses can create. Full of stoneface silent comedy, it also shows ordinary Cubans being drawn to the shoreline to stare at the ocean, a poignant image in a Cuban context as well as a spin on "Moby Dick."

It's a tall order to corral no less than seven complete short films under one umbrella and make the film stay sprightly from end to end; and the two-hours-plus of "7 Days in Havana" require a certain amount of endurance no matter what your affection for the setting. But it also avoids the nagging sense of frivolity that portmanteau films are prone to, and respects the many foibles of the setting. And it allows room for Emir Kusturica to play himself as a visiting, garlanded filmmaker in Pablo Trapero's "Jam Session," roaring drunk at his own awards ceremony and vomiting into the red curtains, proving that film festivals are much the same the world over.


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