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‘Epicentro’ Review: A monumental and monumentally complex observation of Cuba at a crossroads

Oscar-nominated documentarian Hubert Sauper's latest work asks its audience to interrogate everything from imperialism to human nature to cinema itself.
Credit: Kino Lorber

SAN ANTONIO — Cinema is described as many things in the challenging and compellingly conceived new documentary “Epicentro”: The machine of dreams, magic, tourism, witchcraft, war-winning, world-changing. In the latest work from Austrian filmmaker Hubert Sauper, the medium is both something to interrogate and something to marvel at (and sometimes the same subjects do both). But it isn’t until we start to consider the intentions of those behind the scenes as much as what those scenes depict that we begin to get closer to the foundational question “Epicentro” seeks to unpack as Sauper takes his camera through the streets, homes and beaches of 21st-century Cuba. 

What he finds, through conversations of intimate candor and urgent appeal, is a nation that continues to be at odds with how history has shaped it. You could say that the film debates itself on the power and potential of the camera, but Sauper’s portrait feels as graceful as it is incisive. Synchronizing harmoniously with vivid flashes of Havana life, “Epicentro” (the Spanish title translates to what you expect) focuses on the intersection of identity, history and the moving image itself in observing how historic forces have brought the island nation to the point it finds itself at now, largely by remaining where it was at the moment of initial American intervention over 100 years ago. At the same time, Sauper’s central inquiry comes into view: Who affixes the lens through which history is viewed?  

It’s heady stuff, and it’s one of the film’s many triumphs that it doesn’t succumb to the weight of history. Rather, it’s balanced by it. This monumental work won the Grand Jury prize at Sundance for best World Documentary, and it’s amusing to think how its genre counterpart which was awarded best U.S. Documentary, “Boys State” – an enthralling and compelling vision in its own right – is a feat of intricate construction. To watch “Epicentro,” on the other hand, is to watch one of those movies that seems to build on itself in real-time. Its nuances are organic.

Sauper’s movie is a buoyant one, giving the impression that he arrived in Cuba with less of a structured plan and more of an inspired idea. This isn’t a documentary of talking heads and tedious history lessons; it’s one that explores grandiose spaces both physical and conceptual. Documentary cinema “brings reality to peoples’ minds,” says a cartoonish, top-hat wearing man to a group of children in one early scene, the camera gazing upwards at images on a screen like it’s filled with the same awe. What they’re watching is supposed footage of the USS Maine’s explosion in 1898, the instigator of American intervention in Cuba that would be cemented by the Platt Amendment five years later. 

But the movie invites the skepticism of its subjects, even if it means putting Sauper’s own intentions into question: Was the USS Maine footage fabricated as a form of propaganda? Is the explosion we see really taking place in a bathtub, as one student suggests, as a form of political trickery? Even so, another Cuban makes the case that trickery is foundational to cinema, and that sounds inarguable. Whether you view it as technical trickery or magic, there’s a reason the kids’ faces light up as they absorb some of movie’s most iconic early images, including the Lumiére Brothers’ famous train and Georges Méliès’s “A Trip to the Moon.” (Yes, the scene does echo Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo,” as do the emotions.) “For forever, humans loved being told stories,” someone else says in “Epicentro.” The statement hasn’t stopped sounding like the stuff of romance. At the same time, we’re forced to consider what stories have made Cuba out to be. 

That’s just one example of complex conversation that “Epicentro” delves into. When the contradiction of cinema is cross-stitched with quandaries of imperialism, cultural stagnation and human nature, the well feels bottomless, the film expanding inward and outward on itself with the stakes of a reality-bending blockbuster. 

These consequences might ring loudest as we watch European tourists ooh and ahh-ing while and touring the Plaza de la Revolución, using phone cameras to craft their own tourism-driven narrative as they sit in comfort on a bus. On the street, Havana’s denizens lament their city being turned into a place of mere amusement. One of the most transfixing and ominous images you’ll see in a movie this year is of decades-old, brick-and-mortar architecture literally being sliced by the arrival of a sleek, pearl-white cruise ship. Static society is interrupted by the advance of contemporary globalism that halted the country’s own gears many decades ago. 

If this all sounds like weighty subject matter – and a voiceover prologue of sorts that feels like slightly overwrought guided meditation certainly confirms it – it helps that we’re introduced to an intelligent, engaging young Cuban girl early on to help the audience (and Sauper) in picking it apart. One of the so-called “Little Prophets” (as the movie’s marketing has dubbed them), Leonelis Arango Salas is a de facto guide with a vibrant enthusiasm who has no qualms referring to the director by his first name, as though he were an uncle. Representing Cuba’s future as much as its transitional present, she dreams of being an actress, providing yet another avenue for the discussion of stories as a tool of enlightenment and narrative-forming. Perhaps she’ll have her own say in the future of stories about her homeland. 

Serving as a refraction point to Leonelis’s aspirations is a face you may recognize as that of Spanish actress Oona Chaplin, whose own links to cinema history reverberate in her conversations with Leonelis about the practice of shaping reality. Theirs is an intensely close bond of unknown origin, and there’s a quiet emotional power that simmers when Oona picks at a guitar and encourages Leonelis to dance with what is indeed the boundless spirit of a performer-in-the-making. The connection transcends borders, languages, cultural differences. 

But Leonelis also possesses remarkable insight about her country’s history, as well as its relationship to the world beyond. When she speaks of the “faces of people who like war and wealth,” it’s U.S. presidents of past and present she’s referring to, as well as the grip that the U.S. has held Cuba in for so long, to the point where it feels like impossibility that the nation could catch up to the world around it. Around her. 

Credit: Kino Lorber

It’s either ironic or an expert bit of timing that “Epicentro” arrives as the Democratic National Convention/Republican National Convention cycle ends for us Americans. For the last two weeks, our attention has been fixed on the setting of the stage for one of the more consequential elections of recent years. We watched, listened, read about presidential candidates anointed between speeches magnifying, to various political tenors, an attitude of American exceptionalism. Millions of us responded the only way we know how—by tweeting our skepticism or hopefulness. Isn’t it also ironic how one of the freedoms uniting all Americans – that of freedom of speech – has illuminated the things that divide us in online forums?

The talk of politics and American empire in “Epicentro” puts all of it into sobering perspective. The Little Prophets react with furious determination at seeing the stars ‘n stripes and we see images of abandoned American-run sugar mills sitting dormant in the distance, like archaic remains of long-outdated ideology. Interventionist history, Sauper shows, has placed Cuba at an eternal crossroads. “We are going to make the Moon great again!” laughs one person in a Havana bar, referencing America’s planting its flag on the moon 51 years ago, as if claiming it for its own. In fact, there’s no being sure he isn’t an American himself, further encouraging self-examination. The dynamic is made complicated when a woman later insists to a passing officer: “I am speaking in favor of Cuba—nothing against!” and further still as we watch the country pause in the wake of Fidel Castro’s 2016 death. Sauper has amassed a wealth of these moments, and they amount to a portrait as rich as it is complicated.  

As “Epicentro” goes on and we’re further wrapped up in its reckonings with history and perception, things give way to a feeling of inevitable cataclysm. Or perhaps it’s something a bit softer, like melancholy. I have to imagine that that’s due to Leonelis and our other Little Prophets, two of whom Sauper sneaks into a prestige hotel’s rooftop pool. It’s a startlingly endearing sojourn, and starts to resemble a scene of Sean Baker-esque escapism as they soak in the brief fantasy of luxury, as well as the lights of Cuba’s epicentro from a new perspective. This documentary is largely a project of recognition, but through the Little Prophets, it transcends itself, and becomes an act of reclamation. 

"Epicentro" is not rated. It's available now via virtual cinema options.

Directed by Hubert Sauper

2020

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