Cuba, every building is dilapidated, but Jorge de los Rois’ home is particularly
so. Perversely, he keeps making it worse and worse. Formerly one of Havana’s
most exclusive luxury hotels, it is now a battered shell not even fit for squatters.
However, de los Rios finds his reason for being bashing away at the walls and
moldings in the dubious belief the pre-revolutionary owners left some great
treasure somewhere within the guts of the structure. It is an increasingly
lonely and Sisyphean existence documented (for lack of a better word) in Irene
Gutiérrez Torres’ Hotel Nueva Isla (trailer here), which screens
during MoMA’s 2015 Documentary Fortnight.
the Nueva Isla was a magnet for the city’s homeless population, but the unsound
building has become too dangerous for all but the most desperate or committed
squatters. Yet de los Rios continues to whack away. It is hard to speculate how
monomaniacal he really is, given the narrative elements incorporated by Torres
and her co-screenwriter and cinematographer Javier Labrador. Hopefully, the
one-sided pillow talk mostly featuring de los Rios’ somewhat younger lover is
entirely fictional, since he cannot be bothered to throw her the scantest of
emotional bones. Still, the is something tragically compelling about him, sort
of like Rinko Kikuchi’s character in Kumiko the Treasure Hunter, but about a thousand times less moving.
symbolism of the broken down de los Rios and his broken down hotel are hard to
miss. Betrayed by false promises and lean from poor nutrition, he is Cuba
personified. There is simply no way to spin this fly-on-the-wall visit to the Nueva
Isla as a positive for the genre. Yet, despite the added fictional veneer, HNI is a defiantly static film.
Sometimes, it feels like watching the worst PBS handyman show ever: The New Socialist Workshop, starring
Jorge de los Rios. This week, Jorge busts up debris with a hammer, just like
last week, and the week before.
question, HNI makes Cuba look like an
unremittingly crummy place to live. Since Torre and Labrador confine themselves
to the Nueva Isla and rarely leave de los Rios’ side, the film necessarily feels
claustrophobic. Nevertheless, wider concerns (such as the fate of his estranged
son keen to try his luck with the desperate Florida crossing) occasionally
manage to creep in.
the treasure of Nueva Isla is right in front of his eyes, but de Los Rios
cannot see it. The hotel once employed dozens if not hundreds of people and was
a major multiplier for the neighborhood. It was something very valuable for
many people, but now it is a wreck. Castro and his murderous ideology destroyed
it well enough, but de los Rios keeps piling on.
Regardless, there is an awful lot of reality in HNI, but not much energy (you might
wonder why Torres would compromise its vérité purity in a way that does not add
much cinematic get-up-and-go). Honest in spirit with regards to the big
picture, but more interesting in principle than as an actual viewing
experience, Hotel Nueva Isla screens
this Monday (2/16) and Tuesday (2/17) at MoMA, as part of this year’s
Labels: Cuba, Documentary, Documentary Fortnight '15