If asked for an era I could travel back in time and visit, one of my top choices would be Havana in the late forties/early fifties. I guess a part of my fascination with Havana comes from the idea that it had shone so brightly for such a brief time and then it was gone; this in some ways parallels the love affair between the two main characters in Chico and Rita. It was my fascination with this era that lead me to choose to see Chico and Rita at the Chicago International Film Festival.
Animation seemed like it might be the right medium to recreate an era that has long since passed, and it was. The troubled love affair at the heart of the story might have seemed routine if told in a live action story; animation adds a certain timeless quality to the story. I was pleasantly surprised to see that Chico and Rita was nominated for best animated film at the Academy Awards, even if it does seem bizarre that this film was categorized with Puss in Boots and Rango. This film is definitley not a children’s film; it is a very powerful love story for adults.
The story begins with an elderly Chico living in present day Havana. He returns home from his job as a shoeshiner, and turns on the radio. He hears a song performed by Chico and Rita that causes his mind to drift back to 1948. In 1948, Chico and his friend Ramon are at a bar with two American women when a woman named Rita takes the stage. Chico is drawn to this woman and her voice, but she also is not at the bar alone and ends up being taken by her date to the Tropicana Club. Chico and Ramon sneak into the Tropicana Club through the performer’s entrance and almost end up being kicked out because Chico provokes Rita’s date. However, in a lucky break, the band is in need of a pianist and Chico ends up being taken backstage to perform.
After hearing Chico play, Rita finally agrees to ditch her date and goes home with Chico; it really is the music that brings the two together. After their night together, Chico composes as song named “Rita.” However, the happy couple is interrupted by Chico’s former girlfriend and Rita leaves angrily.
There is a competition being held in which the prize for winning is a month long engagement at the Hotel Nacional. Chico will not enter it without Rita, but Rita is not speaking to him. His friend and manager Ramon ends up negotiating with Rita to persuade her to perform with Chico for the competition. They end up winning (with the song that was heard on the radio at the beginning of the film), and once again the two lovers seem to be on the right track.
Their residency at the Hotel Nacional goes well, but soon Chico is jealous of the men who are attracted to Rita. One fateful evening, Chico becomes very jealous of a man who talks to Rita about coming to New York City and offers her a contract. His intoxication impairs his ability to understand what is going on, and he leaves the bar angrily, thinking that Rita has chosen the American over him. In fact Rita has insisted that the contract include both of them and goes to wait for Chico in the courtyard to his apartment. Rita falls asleep, but, unfortunately, she awakes to see the drunken Chico being helped into his apartment by his old girlfriend. She leaves with the American the next morning.
I won’t give away the rest of the story, but various forces pull the two lovers together, only to have them pulled apart again by people whose interests are better served by separating them. The action travels from New York to Paris to Las Vegas and back to Havana. Both performers obtain success, only to lose it, and each other. There are themes of betrayal and loyalty running through this film. It also deals with racism and prejudice, and how it affected even the most successful of entertainers.
Jazz music is also character in the film. The film also gives a fascinating portrayal of jazz music in this period, and various jazz musicians pop up in the story. You meet animated versions of legends, such as Chano Pozo and Dizzy Gillespie. Jazz music is at the heart of this story. Both characters love music and express their feelings through the music they are composing and/or performing. The music is what keeps bringing the two lovers together and it is what pulls the viewer through the story.
The animation is a fairly simple animation; the bold colors and simple lines add to the feel and the tone of the picture. It’s nothing flashy, but animation was a perfect medium for this story. Animation allows Havana in its heyday to be recreated quite simply, and allows the characters to travel from one glamorous location to another with ease. Past eras can be reconstructed with a paper and pencil in ways that they can’t in reality. The past can really be resurrected before your eyes with animation. This film is as much about a love affair with an era of music as it is about the love affair between the two leads.
As a side note, when I saw this film, it was in Spanish with subtitles. I’ve heard that there will be an English version in which the voices will be dubbed, but that was not the version that I saw, so I can’t comment on it.