To an outsider (particularly an outsider from the United States), Cuba seems frozen in time, as if the clocks stopped all stopped in Havana when Castro took power from Batista on January 1, 1959. But Yank tanks and revolutionary rhetoric tell only part of the story. Cuba is, like all nations, a land filled with people, whose lives did not suddenly stop with the U.S. embargo. Socialism brought neither absolute happiness nor total despair; it simply reconfigured the balance of the two. As Corey Robin has written, “I think the point of socialism is to convert hysterical misery into ordinary unhappiness.” I don’t know if Cuba has achieved its dreams of perfect socialiam, but there is certainly a great deal of ordinary unhappiness in Ben Chace’s dense, rhythmically complex, and breezily entertaining Without Wings.
Without Wings (or “Sin Alas”), the first American production in Cuba since 1959, is not a documentary — it is a multi-layered, Borges-inspired historical romance — but it pulses with the vibrancy of Havana. Shot on the bustling streets of Havana and in the surreal suburb of Hershey in beautifully granular 16mm by ace DP Sean Price Williams (who has previously made invaluable contributions to the work of, among others, Alex Ross Perry, the Safdie Brothers, and Jessica Oreck), Without Wings feels like some lost documentary from the 1970s, unaccountably gorgeous B-roll footage left over from a Saul Landau film.
Without Wings follows three distinct threads.
In the first and most prominent, Luis Vargas (Carlos Padrón) is haunted by a melody. In his dreams, Isabela Munoz (Yulisleyvís Rodrigues), a great revolutionary ballerina, dances to the song. One morning, Vargas reads that Munoz has died. He attends her funeral, but the song and visions of Munoz continue to haunt him. As we learn in flashback, Vargas and Munoz carried on a brief affair in the very early days of the Castro era. Deeply in love, they were wrenched apart by Munoz’s husband, a politically powerful military official.
In the second thread, Vargas’s father, a bourgeois businessman, carried on an affair with the family maid. The affair and the revolution forced the family to leave Cuba for the United States.
The third thread follows the difficulties encountered by Katrina (Camila Arteche) and her boyfriend Yuniesky (Adael Rosales), who have a young daughter together. Katrina’s grandmother dislikes Yuniesky, presumably for racial reasons, and refuses to allow him to move in. Yuniesky considers fleeing to the United States.
These threads reflect Cuba’s pre-revolutionary past, its present stasis of the revolution, and its hope for the future as embodied in Katrina and Yuniesky’s daughter, whose image closes the film.
Chace, who also wrote the screenplay, weaves these strands into a brilliantly textured whole that offers a multi-faceted portrait of contemporary Cuba. Vargas’s story is a deeply nostalgic look at the ways in which mass politics intersect with personal lives. In losing Munoz, Vargas loses a piece of the revolution. He seems to have stalled for decades, consumed by his yearning for Munoz, his loss of faith in the revolution, his inability to make of his life what he wishes. Vargas’s amigo Ovilio (Mario Limonta) reflects that the only way to get a song out of your head is to hear it. So too, for Vargas, the only way to retrieve his lost passion (for art, for love, for revolution) is to make a gesture toward the future.
Cuba’s gonna be alright, but humans will never learn how to love.