Director: Agustí Villaronga
Writers: Agustí Villaronga
Country: Dominican Republic, Spain
Duration: 125 min
Stars: Héctor Medina,Jean Luis Burgos,Maikol David,Yordanka Ariosa,Agustí Villaronga,Héctor Medina,Jean Luis Burgos
Set in the turbulent Cuba of the Nineties – a period of economic crisis known as the “Special Period” – the melodrama in Agustí Villaronga’s The King Of Havana starts in the upper stratosphere and keeps on climbing, with the tone caught between something played for laughs and a film that wants to tap into much more serious social issues. The story – adapted from the book by Pedro Juan Gutiérrez – ends up as ripe and messy as the municipal dump which puts in an appearance towards its end.
The opening sequence is a case in point. Here young Reinaldo (Maikol David Tortolo) watches while his brother has an argument with mum, only for her to fall unfortunately on some dodgy electrics and fry. Immediately remorseful, his brother leaps from the roof and, just in case that’s not enough, Reinaldo goes to hug his grandmother only to discover she has died in her sleep. This literal overkill is mimicked by tonal histrionics throughout the rest of the film.
Reinaldo is locked away for these crimes he didn’t commit but escapes as a teen and finds himself living a life on the margins. Villaronga may want to involve us in his ‘tragedy’ but he fails to establish Reinaldo in a sufficiently moral position before he begins his descent – this is a boy who starts from the bottom and sinks.
It’s not so much a shortening of his name as the length he goes to in the trouser department that leads to his nickname of “Rey” (The King). His ability to satisfy those he sleeps with leads him to set up not one but two homes. The first is with local prostitute Magda (Yordanka Ariosa, whose committed and deliberately wild performance, to almost everyone’s surprise, beat the likes of Julianne Moore and Ellen Page to the actress Silver Shell at San Sebastian last month). The other, is with the altogether more gentle trans Yunisleidy (Héctor Medina), who lives in the much more lovingly upholstered squat next door and makes money through a combination of turning tricks for rich foreigners and dealing drugs.
The film used the Dominican Republic to double for Cuba but the production design is so lurid as to make the environment look more like the set of a musical than the real-life streets of anywhere – a perennial problem for Villaronga, whose Black Bread also has an ‘chocolate box’ photo quality that sits unevenly with its historical setting. These half-formed characters roam the fragmented narrative until all sense of reality – and hope, both for them and us – is lost.