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'The King of Havana': A Movie that is Painful to Watch

DDC spoke with Yordanka Ariosa and Jazz Vilá, two of the actors appearing in the film. Cuba's cultural authorities barred it from being shot in Cuba.

La Habana
Still of 'The King of Havana' by Agustí Villaronga.
Still of 'The King of Havana' by Agustí Villaronga. SANSEBASTIANFESTIVAL.COM

In the squalid Havana of the 90s, Reinaldo, a youth recently released from a correctional facility, mixes with the dregs of society: beggars, prostitutes, transvestites, street peddlars, the inhabitants of an abandoned and dilapidated building; penniless people who lived during the toughest times of what was dubbed the "Special Period."

This is the plot of the film The King of Havana by the Spanish director Agustí Villaronga (Pa negre, 2011), based on the eponymous novel by Cuban writer Pedro Juan Gutiérrez and released this week at the San Sebastián Film Festival.

The movie's script respects the essence of the book, actor and coach Jazz Vilá told DIARIO DE CUBA. "It is a surprising story, because it is about destitution in Cuba, which, of course, is not talked about or documented. But it was real, and we cannot erase that fact, even if we want to," he stated.

"Pedro Juan's literature is very insightful, deep. It is literature about the every day,  Cuba's contemporary history, 20 years ago," Vilá stated.

"I don't think I ever uttered so many bad words in all my life. There are also some very intense scenes, some that are very sexual,” shared Yordanka Ariosa, the fim's feminine protagonist.

"Visually, I believe that they centered on the dismal and dark aspects of that period; the blackouts, the decay. The characters border on marginality, and the idea was to depict that reality as faithfully as possible, through grimy makeup, tattered clothes; an image of degeneracy," explained the actress.

The starkness with which the movie portrays the effects of the Special Period would be the main reason Cuba's cultural authorities did not allow it to be shot on the island.

Villaronga and his actors had to go to the Dominican Republic in order to complete the project. Thus far The King of Havana has not been shown in Cuban theaters.

The cast

The casting was divided into two parts, explained Jazz Vilá, who cooperated in the process in Cuba.

"First Agustí was in Havana to meet some actors. He had already seen Héctor Medina in the theater, and chose him for the film. From the outset I suggested Yordanka Ariosa for the female lead. Finding the boy for the main role was more difficult, entailing a first reading, followed by a more general casting. In the end the casting director, Libya Batista, found him," explained Vilá. "I believe that we won the lottery with Maykol Tortolo because, even though he's not an actor, he was really likeable in his role."

Jazz Vilá himself plays Raulito. "The character has few sequences, but I loved him because he opens up a new range of serious masculine characters," he explained.

"Raulito is a pusher, and a kind of pimp. Working on the film as a coach, I played other small roles, including a transvestite (…) In that sense it was a lot of fun to transform for various roles, because it´s something that an actor does in theater, but not in cinema," he added.

Yordanka Ariosa, recognized in Cuba for her work in the theater, played a starring role in a movie for the first time.

If we look at Magda's story, it is has little to do with me, what I’m like as a person. But, looking at it more deeply, I believe that we actually have a lot in common, in terms of her way of being, her congeniality, in spite of the penury in which she lives and the things that happen to her,” she said about her character, the partner of the film's male protagonist.

"She is a complex character, who may end up being negative for audiences," she noted.

The ICAIC turned its back on the project

When the casting had already been done in Cuba, and possible locations selected, the ICAIC's refusal to allow filming in Havana forced the team to look for other options.

This "delayed the film, which, in fact, was on the verge of not being made," said Vilá. "The decision called for new casting, in the Dominican Republic, and another process in Spain," he indicated.

The film was shot in San Pedro de Macorís and Santo Domingo. The team and art director, Alain Ortiz, sought to recreate the atmosphere of the Cuban capital.

"We sought sites that looked a lot like Havana. This was tough, because, no matter how you try, Havana is Havana, and it is known all around the world. But we tried to do the best we could. I think that the film is more about inside than outside, more about specifically what happens to these people, where and how they live," Ariosa explained.

Vilá believes that "somebody who is not Cuban will see something as colorful as Havana. A Cuban, a Havanan, will know the difference."

"Havana has its colors, its scents, that are not felt in the cinema, but are part of the actors' realities. Havana is unique, in its deconstruction, its atmosphere, its construction, state and ambiance. It is impossible to replicate the city anywhere."

It is not the first time that the Cuban cultural authorities have rejected coproductions with foreign directors, squandering the chance to open up new facets in national cinema.

Vilá believes that "this is going to be another one of Agustí Villaronga's great movies. Unfortunately, we blew the opportunity to have a director of this caliber work in Cuba."

"Cubans feel a lot when they see a film of this type, because it tends to be like a macabre mirror in which they are glad to see themselves, but they're also sad when they recognize themselves," Vilá explained. "It is a film about a time in history that it is painful for Cubans, both there and those outside, to watch."

The King of Havana is based "on a novel by a very realistic writer; there is no possible adornment of the situations, and Agustí created a spectacular adaptation," said Ariosa. "I think that the time has come to expose the Cuban public to those things that also happened. I'm not saying that cinema can't also just amuse and distract you, but cinema must also show what Cuba went through, and how it, somehow, blocked many people."

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