REVIEW: Chico & Rita [2011]

Score: 7/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: NR | Runtime: 94 minutes | Release Date: February 25th, 2011 (Spain)
Studio: CinemaNX / Gkids
Director(s): Tono Errando, Javier Mariscal & Fernando Trueba
Writer(s): Ignacio Martínez de Pisón & Fernando Trueba

“I needed to kiss you again”

Set during the synthesis of Latin Jazz in Cuba and its spilling over to the United States, Chico y Rita [Chico & Rita] gives us a love story that lasts half a century. Animated in a charmingly two-dimensional way devoid of gradients in lieu of clearly defined shadows superimposed atop solid shapes of color, the imperfect lines and fluid lights match the slow-tempo bolero songs and dance filling the screen. It’s an era of excitement and music between friendly nations as Woody Herman comes to the Tropicana in Cuba and native percussionist Chano Pozo travels to America on tour with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. The sound drove these young musicians to notoriety and created passionate love to mirror its peaks and valleys. It’s what brought Chico (Eman Xor Oña) and Rita (Limara Meneses) together before ultimately tearing them apart.

Beginning present day with an elderly shoe-shiner walking at a crawl’s pace home to bask in the sunshine of his gorgeous Havana views, a neighbor utters his name and we understand he is the Chico on the radio. Pretending to play a windowsill piano along with the song, memories of 1948 flood back as we’re whisked away to a small club where his younger self and best friend Ramón (Mario Guerra) have a couple Yankee tourists on their arms. Out for a drink and fun, Chico locks eyes with the evening’s singer and falls in love with both voice and beauty at once. Neglecting his date, the pianist approaches Rita to perform as a duo in a contest holding the chance for a steady performance deal. After being shot down, he follows her by sneaking into a club and soon ditches the American so the two can consummate their new partnership at his apartment.

The problem, however, is that too much love is in the air and a morning at the piano composing the tune “Rita” turns into a cat fight between the eponymous woman and Chico’s girlfriend Juana. It’s but the first of many rough patches as the relationship between our leads goes on and off again as though a light switch in the hands of a fickle five year old fooling around. There is a palpable connection—as much as animation can convey—and we know that deep down they do care for one another despite tempers, weakness, and their desire for fame. A constant series of misassumptions eventually finds them on opposite sides of the Gulf of Mexico as Chico’s inability to trust leads him into a drunken stupor while producer Ron (Lenny Mandel) takes Rita to the states for a career in the pictures.

Admittedly, the tumultuous ups and downs of the titular pairing can get a bit annoying as just a second can turn anger into a passionate embrace. Perhaps there is a cultural divide in this regard, though, and I’ll give screenwriters Fernando Trueba and Ignacio Martínez de Pisón the benefit of the doubt. But while the love story may fall prey to convenience, schizophrenic reversals, and an overall stereotypical trajectory towards fate finding a way to keep them together, the real appeal of Chico y Rita comes from the world directors Trueba and Javier Mariscal have created. And I don’t mean just visually with the stunning landscapes of Las Vegas, New York City, and Havana possessing full frames of neon lights, skyscrapers, and the hustle and bustle of city living, but also the non-fictional history of Latin Jazz’s origins at work in the background.

Our toes start tapping as we’re allowed to watch Herman and Parker do their thing on stage—Chico’s “Lily” hitting the airwaves and Rita’s cinematic vocals aren’t the only music heard. Chano Pozo finds his way into the plot too as he takes Chico and Ramón under his wings upon their arrival to the States. What happens to this legendary percussionist in the film is true to form with his real life counterpart and the filmmakers’ ability to mix the fictional romance in is seamless. The Cuban Revolution enters the fray to label jazz as imperialist, financial stability sees friends backstabbing friends and powerful enemies buying whom they wish, and the allure of fortune becomes inferior to the love we know could have made all the difference if only pride didn’t get in the way.

Deserving of its Goya for Best Animated Feature in Spain and its Oscar nomination in the same category here in the US, Chico y Rita is definitely a work of art worth seeing. Parents should not be confused and assume the lack of rating makes it safe for children, however, since the film does contain nudity, drugs, and violence throughout, but it is a wonderful change of pace to the Hollywood machine for a mature audience who loves culture. Full of a Cuban flavor and jazz pieces that may be familiar to fans of the genre, the rather sentimental romance at its center shouldn’t negate the success of everything happening around it.

A tragic tale of star-crossed love needing a youthful ear of quality musicianship fifty years later to keep the possibility of its spark alive, this rare feat of magic retains a bit of fairy tale whimsy in its stunningly animated crane shots of motion. Some may say the style is crude while others will declare it an unparalleled vision of beauty, but I hope everyone taking the time to visit this slice of music history can appreciate the fervor for life portrayed and how exciting it must have been to be in the middle of it all.

[1] Chico & Rita, nightclub.
[2] New York street, night time.
[3] Dizzy Gillespie, Paris nightclub.
courtesy of GKIDS.

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