Chico & Rita

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Robin Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Robin Clifford 
Chico & Rita

Chico & Rita
Laura Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Laura Clifford 

Havana, Cuba 1948. Chico (Eman Xor Ona) is an ambitious and talented composer and pianist. Rita (Limara Meneses) has an extraordinary singing voice. From the moment they meet the two seem destined to be together forever but the hand of fate will change that destiny for “Chico & Rita.”

This is a beautiful, old fashioned romance set in post-WWII Havana, New York, Las Vegas, LA and Paris and has the best in the music of Havana in the 40s and 50s, the works of such classic composers as Cole Porter and what was to become known to the world as jazz – the music of such legends as Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk and Latino greats Tito Puente, Chano Pozo and Chuco Valdez.

All of this great music is not wasted and walks hand in hand with the story by Ignacio Martinez de Pison and co-director Fernando Trueba. The film begins with aged Chico getting by, barely, in modern day Havana. He gets through his daily drudge, taking the time to listen to listen to his favorite radio station that plays the classics from the early jazz days. As he lay there on his bed, the DJ plays a song long familiar to the man – a song he recorded decades ago with his beloved Rita. Dissolve to his memories when the two first meet.

The romantic tale is about love found, love lost, love found, hope, sorrow, trust and mistrust, misunderstanding and forgiveness, the Cuban Revolution and the lives of two people. “Chico & Rita” spans decades and is full of life’s highs and lows seen through the title characters – and all this accompanied by the aforementioned great music. The animation is simple yet elegant, especially when the panoramas of Manhattan and Las Vegas are shown in vivid color and detail.

This romance follows classic lines ala films like “Now Voyager” and, while the story is well known and oft told, it all feels fresh and new. I have been reviewing films for over 20 years and am a pretty hard-boiled critic, not being the sentimental type. But, at the end of “Chico & Rita,” I was all teary eyed and ferklempt with a lump in my throat – AND I DO NOT CARE WHO KNOWS!
I rarely do this. I give it an A.

1948, Havana.  A good looking undiscovered pianist, Chico (voice of Eman Xor Oña), and his best buddy Ramón (voice of Mario Guerra) are escorting two 'Yankees' around their city's hot spots when he spies Rita (voice of Limara Meneses), a sultry singer in a small club.  He fails to impress her even though there is obvious chemistry until they cross paths again later in the evening at the storied Tropicana Club and she goes with her gut.  But their paths will diverge and reconnect on differing planes of fame after the two win a national talent contest billed as "Chico & Rita."

Directed by Brothers Tono Errando & Javier Mariscal and "Belle Epoque" Oscar winner Fernando Trueba, who also cowrote the screenplay with Ignacio Martínez de Pisón, GKIDS' "Chico and Rita," along with "A Cat in Paris," is not only a surprise Oscar nominee for best animated feature, it's a total game changer. This stunningly animated adult love story filled with glorious music falls right into the same nostalgia for vintage entertainment that has made "The Artist" and "Hugo" strike so many chords.

The film is bookended by scenes set in the 1990's where Chico, old and alone in a now Communist Cuba, is swept back when he hears one of his and his old flames' hits on the radio. That and a box of clippings and photographs whisk him back and we witness how even on their first night together the love story is slated to be a rocky one.  After leaving Ramon with the two American beauties on his motorcycle and side car rig, Rita goes home with Chico for a night of love making to the sound of the ocean's waves. But despite his infatuation, Chico is a ladies' man and his regular squeeze Juanita arrives and the fur flies.

Rita's rise takes her to New York City, and when Chico and Ramon follow, Javier Mariscal's animation design showcases the radical change - from a sprawling city loaded with warmth and color to urban canyons in a monochromatic winter.  Mariscal's stunning production design, with its beautifully detailed architecture and interiors, recalls the magical animation of Sylvain Chomet's works and although the people he places within his world are much more simply rendered, his line drawings are fluid and expressive.  The production skips from New York, where Chico and Ramon arrive in a fever dream tribute to "On the Town" and intersect with the murder of Cuban percussionist Chano Poso, to Hollywood with Rita and Paris with Chico on the coattails of Dizzy Gillepsie.  Rita's star falls in Las Vegas as she rebels against racism in the 1950's and Chico lands back in a revolutionized Havana.  The lovers seem destined to be kept apart until a young Latin music star visiting Cuba decades later discovers a legend still lives.

The time period the filmmakers have chosen is ripe for exploring so many things.  Its visuals are constantly evolving - by the time Rita hits Hollywood, the color scheme gets sultrier with inky blacks and purples and a 'b&w' segment done in reds and browns.  Camerawork becomes slicker, a dazzling crane shot sweeping down the side of building to find our characters in a room within.   City lights sparkle whether on the Plaza Hotel rooftop or the streets of Paris and a pink Cadillac floats along New York City streets like a space ship. The eye level bustle of old Havana is matched by the sprawl of motels on Las Vegas outskirts.

That Hollywood influence, though, also affects the love story, which ties up a bit too neatly for all the complexities of fame, race, music and history which have defined it until then.  But "Chico & Rita" is such a transporting experience, we can still be swept away.  It's dazzling.


("Chico & Rita" is in Spanish with subtitles.)
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