Every decade or so, culture vultures in the United States likes to fly in the face of government policy of disdain for Cuba and embrace one of its recent films. Memories of Underdevelopment was favored, I Am Cuba (technically a Soviet film) developed a cult, and Strawberries and Chocolate was semi-popular all in their day. The latest film to make a bid for American rebelliousness against official policy is Life is to Whistle (La Vida es silbar). Originally released in 1998, the film found its way to the U.S in 2000, and now enjoys DVD release from New Yorker films. But Fernando Pérez's film, though it has a funny gimmick and a sensuous attitude toward life, ultimately tries the viewer's patience.
The film balances three narrative strands, all concerning adult orphans, and all linked by a young narrator/hostess/spirit figure named Bebe (Bebe Perez), who pops up occasionally to mark transitions between the three stories. Those tales concern, first, Elpidio Valdes (Luis Alberto Garcia), a musical fisherman who has an affair with a Greenpeace worker (Isabel Santos) who tempts him to abandon Cuba with her in her hot-air balloon. Then there is Julia (Coralia Veloz), a middle-aged social worker who has fainting spells whenever she hears the word sex; it turns out that Havana is experiencing an epidemic of fainting spells as people collapse upon hearing "forbidden" words such as "freedom." Finally there is Mariana (Claudia Rojas), a dancer who vows celibacy so she can earn a part in a production of Giselle, and then has the misfortune to fall in love with her co-star.
Most of these anecdotal tales are political allegories, and critical of Cuba at that; they also infuse a little magical realism into the proceedings, which sits poorly with the gross reality of a stripped bare, politically committed culture. It's not a very subtle film (a character called Cuba is sought by everyone), and the romantic clichés are worthy of early Adrian Lyne. The thin characters don't inspire much enthusiasm. In the end, Life is to Whistle has a few enjoyable moments but is a little difficult to concentrate on or follow, and doesn't transcend its politics with vivid images or revolutionary cinematic techniques.
VIDEO: Life is to Whistle isn't offered up in the greatest transfer you are ever going to see. It is dark and grainy, and just doesn't look that great, be it technical, or attributable to cinematographer Raúl Pérez Ureta. It's a widescreen image (1.85:1) enhanced for widescreen televisions.
SOUND: Sound options are limited to Spanish Dolby Digital stereo, with English subtitles.
MENUS: A static, silent menu offers 16 chapter scene selection for this 106 minute movie.
PACKAGING: Life is to Whistle comes in a keep case with cover art that reprints the poster, perhaps not the best advertisement for the movie. The label on the disc borrows elements of the poster. An insert lists chapter titles and bears a director's statement.
EXTRAS: Besides scene selection and English subtitle options, the disc offers an unillustrative trailer. one screen ad for other New Yorker film releases.
Final Thoughts: Life is to Whistle is a turgid affair straining for significance and joy. Aficionados of Latin American cinema and magical realism might find it diverting, and those interested in Cuba may relish the country as it flies by in the background. Minimal extras make it uninteresting to film students. Fans of the Buena Vista Social Club will perhaps enjoy arbitrary shots of band leader Benny Moré.