With Fidel Castro gone and trade embargoes relaxed, any present-day vision of Cuba feels like an ephemeral one, a time-marking snapshot of a country in unpredictable transition. That’s one reason to value veteran Cuban filmmaker Fernando Pérez’s “Last Days in Havana,” a cross-generational portrait of the crumbling capital’s hard-up dreamers that serves of a kind of conflicted valentine to the city itself, gazing upon its weathered walls and worn faces in authentic, unaffected detail. As drama, however, Pérez’s film is rather less rewarding, knotting together thin narrative strands that are either predictably resolved or never work up many questions to begin with. More organic but less vibrant than such recent evocations of the same milieu as “Viva” and “The King of Havana,” Pérez’s film may be limited to a respectful festival run following its international premiere in the Berlinale Special sidebar.
To be fair, if much of “Last Days in Havana” feels familiar, that’s partly because the real-life narrative for working-class Cubans has changed all too little over the years: As a cry against the debilitating system, Pérez’s film may not say anything especially new, but it makes itself heard. Taciturn, drawn-faced Miguel (Patricio Wood) ekes out the bare minimum of an existence in downtown Havana as he waits, with amply tested patience, to secure a visa to escape to the U.S.: In the meantime, he’s dolefully employed as a dish-washer at a grimy diner, shrugging off his boss’s chiding criticism with an impassive mien that says, “I guess it could somehow be worse.” 45 years old and single, he shares a dilapidated apartment with his childhood friend Diego (Jorge Martinez), a sprightlier soul now bedridden with AIDS.
Miguel and Diego’s odd-couple friendship is a touching one the film could stand to develop with more nuance, beyond expository chunks of backstory-delivering dialogue. More generous and open-minded than his dour demeanor might suggest, the heterosexual Miguel thinks nothing of hitting the city’s seamier streets in search of a rent-boy to bring home for the chaste amusement of his ailing gay friend; it’s in this way that sassy but good-hearted young gigolo P4 (Cristian Jesús Pérez) becomes a regular fixture in the household. (His nickname, owed to a dirty joke, makes for one of the film’s few laughs.) Though he’s half the men’s age, the future looks equally cloudy for P4, whose modest dream of becoming pedicap driver still seems quite a distant one.
The woes of the young are likewise embodied by another regular visitor, Diego’s teenage niece Yusi (Gabriela Ramos), whose brash, rebellious attitude masks a nervous pit of worry in her stomach — and something else growing in her belly besides. Ramos’ boisterous, livewire performance, scarcely allowing her co-stars a word in edgeways, protects the film from its more maudlin impulses in the second half. Like her co-stars, however, she’s given only one facet of a character to color. Pérez brings his experience as a documentary filmmaker to the film’s muggy, sweat-stained evocation of place and time, but the non-fiction influence is less consistent in his and Abel Rodríguez’s script, which veers between observational inactivity and broad, flat melodrama.
An irregular chapter structure, divided by title cards bearing oddly specific dates that have no greater bearing on the narrative, doesn’t do much to bind or pace proceedings. Ultimately, it’s the background motions and details of “Last Days in Havana,” and the social circumstances they reveal, that are the film’s most compelling virtue: the lazy buzz and chatter of local men in the barber shop, the feverish Christmas Eve candy rush in a local supermarket, the awkward interplay between strangers trapped in a shared taxi cab on a day of torrential rain. All are lovingly caught in Raúl Pérez Ureta’s unassuming camera lens, though that love is spiked with the filmmakers’ own sense of sorrow for the past and concern for the future.