CHICO & RITA has everything you want in an epic romance. Two talented, yet self-destructive individuals who fall in love, fall apart and reunite across vast distances over a span of decades. Classic formula at its finest. The film stands out in two memorable ways because the lovers are: 1) Cuban and 2) jazz musicians. I should have known the concept behind such a film had a deeper cultural context than your typical American romcom/romdram.
From the film’s official website:
Fernando Trueba insisted to his co-director Javier Mariscal – “We must concentrate in the script on the love story. A classic: a girl and a boy. She’s a singer, he’s a piano player. Like a bolero (Latin ballad). Boleros for the Latinos are songs of terrible stories of love, ‘I can’t kiss you because your lips kiss another’s lips.’ Always like that.”
As I sat in my local art house theater, I couldn’t help but feel comforted by the fact that the screen was a little out of focus. Even a scratch appeared in the opening credits. I was watching this movie on 35mm and it was glorious.
I was also impressed with the animation style of the film. It’s refreshing to see 2D drawings that effortlessly present such sexy characters. It’s a restrained sexy, though. The confidence and comfort with one’s body that women and men possessed in the 40’s oozes from the screen. The film’s soundtrack was equally sensual. Jazz has a rich complex history and I learned a lot from the film about how Cuba was influenced by American trends.
Most surprising were the methods in which racial politics were addressed. The film does take place during a restrictive time for brown-skinned individuals in the U.S. In the first few scenes where a smitten Chico is trying to track down mysterious Rita, he has to enter the famous Tropicana club through the service entrance because it’s for Whites only. Even when he enters, he, Rita and the musicians stand out drastically against the sea of White patrons in Havana. When Rita gets a role in a Hollywood film, her fame is still not enough to conquer the color of her skin. A White socialite boasts to the White director that he will be taking a risk making a film with a Latina. Rita is not just a pretty face and sharply replies that the only risk would be whether or not she would be visible in the night scenes. Ha! Take that, 1940’s prejudice! The directors did a great job of presenting the contradictions faced by musicians of color during that time. Rita later earns top billing at a venue in Las Vegas but has to stay in a hotel outside of city limits. She poetically calls out to the White audience: “You say I’m a star, but what kind of star can I be?” Absolutely one of my favorite scenes in the film.
I’m still scratching my head at why this film didn’t win for Best Animated Feature Film. RANGO was just okay, in my opinion. Anything would have a hard time following after TOY STORY 3. I’d say that perhaps CHICO & RITA was too adult of a love story for the conventional Academy members. RANGO was safe like many of the other wins that night. Luckily, CHICO & RITA is available now on DVD (region 2 only).