There are certain places in the world that conjure an almost universal sense of longing; places that seem to carry a palpable sense of themselves in the air, and places whose tumultuous histories have created masses of displaced persons who feel as though they might never go home again. If you’ve ever spent time in Miami, happen to have a deep love of Latin Jazz, or have Cuban family or friends, you might recognize Cuba as one of these places. Cuba has a rich cultural history, with music, art, and poetry that seem to be born of its very earth. It also has a history of political violence and ensuing diaspora that left people scattered with fettered hearts across the globe. What results is a sort of global seeding of what the Portuguese call “saudade,” a deep state of longing for something or someone loved, combined with an unconscious knowledge that that thing or person may never return, or that you may never return to it.
It is this sense of saudade that forms the emotional underpinning of the animated film Chico & Rita, the collaborative work of Spanish Director Fernando Trueba and prolific Spanish designer and artist Javier Mariscal. Like the feeling of nostalgic yearning itself, Chico & Rita is an immersive experience, with each of its parts acting in concert to create both a narrative and a feeling. It’s a love story between two people — you guessed correctly: Chico and Rita — but it’s also a love story dedicated to a fleeting time and place that gave birth to some of the most innovative and invigorating music of the 20th Century.
Chico & Rita opens quietly in present day Havana – an anonymous elderly shoe shine man winds his way through shabby streets lined with buildings whose cheerful pastel exteriors speak to a time of former glory. The man reaches his one-room apartment, pours a beer, and stares searchingly over the skyline of the city as a radio program featuring hits from a bygone era transports his memory and the film’s setting to 1948. Pre-Communist Havana has been called the Caribbean Paris, and it’s in the midst of this energetic atmosphere that the story of Chico and Rita’s star-crossed relationship begins.
Among the hustle and bustle of Havana’s world-renowned Tropicana Club, Chico, a gifted and penniless piano player with a cad’s bravado, has a chance meeting with Rita, a singer with a sultry voice, a prideful facial expression, and a quick draw with sharp retorts, and in whom Chico immediately sees his ticket to musical success. The two have a series of enjoyable verbal sparring matches, finding in one another a mutually recognized passion for music as well as a fierce artistic ambition that each seems to believe can transport them to a life of fame and comfort. From the Tropicana Club, Chico and Rita embark on a turbulent personal and professional romance that travels the globe, from New York City, to Los Angeles, Paris, and Las Vegas, and which stretches across four decades, encompassing a range of successes and failures.
The film’s animation artist, Javier Mariscal, is perhaps best known for creating Spain’s design aesthetic and graphic identity in the post-Franco years, and while his drawings and illustrations have been central to his design work throughout his career, Chico & Rita marks the first time his artistic vision has been translated into an animated format. His animation style — as lifelike as Waking Life, but less realistic and more painterly — reinforces the emotional peaks and valleys each character experiences throughout the film. As Chico and Rita’s initial passion blooms, they’re bathed in warm colors, wide nighttime shots of New York City forgo the typical tendency to create an exciting city of lights and instead feature formidable buildings cast in lonely hues of blue, Rita’s vibrant yellow dress accents her fiery personality, etc.
Interestingly, Fernando Trueba doesn’t devote much time to or energy on developing complex characters in the typical sense in Chico & Rita, nor does he allow their relationship to blossom in any sort of traditional way —we know little to nothing of either character’s background, motivations, friends, or outside interests, and there isn’t an atmosphere of candlelight dinners, games of ten questions, or bonding experiences apart from a series of passionate moments of physical and musical symbiosis. Their immediate bond is as romantically mysterious as it is powerful. It’s almost as if they meet already in a state of saudade for one another.
In the hands of a lesser director, the lack of character development would feel like a weakness; however, Trueba’s encyclopedic knowledge of music (Trueba is also a music producer) comes to bear by using the richness and dimensionality of the improvisational expertise of artists like Tito Puente, Chano Pozo, and Dizzy Gillespie, to amplify moments of heartbreak, tenderness, and hope, giving depth to Chico and Rita’s experiences through musical narrative.
As the film moves from Cuba to New York, Paris, and Vegas, Chico and Rita are repeatedly drawn to one another, compelled by their romantic passion, while also repeatedly driven apart by their individual passion for music and dedication to their own ambitions. They yearn constantly for one another, while simultaneously longing nearly equally for personal success. Along the way, their talents, passions, and ambitions highlight issues of sexism, opportunism, racism, and xenophobia in the jazz-fueled music industry of the day. Rita’s signature voice, a mark of musical authenticity in Havana, becomes a fetishized signifier of “primitive” sexuality in the United States, relegating her to a category of tokenized fame. Meanwhile, Chico is literally sold by Rita’s white manager, who packs him off to Paris by way of Chico’s two-faced (or maybe desperate) friend and manager.
Though often painful and unjust, their experiences transform them. Chico’s bravado falls away over time to reveal the soft heart underneath, while Rita’s experience as a non-white, female musician in the United States gradually wears down her fierce pride, making room for the person she is beneath. And ultimately, they each undergo hardships in order to discover that sometimes you have to become intimate with the darkest of nights in service of the light that dawns on its heels.