Movie Information

Hubert Sauper's compelling documentary highlights the importance of cinema in Cuban culture.
Genre: Documentary
Director: Hubert Sauper
Starring: Oona Castilla Chaplin
Rated: NR

Cigars, 1950s American muscle cars and poverty-stricken barrios fuel this compelling documentary by Oscar-nominated Austrian filmmaker Hubert Sauper (Darwin’s Nightmare). Written, directed and filmed by Sauper — who also serves as its narrator and co-editor — Epicentro takes a deep dive into the current state of Cuba and explores the lingering effects of Spanish and American occupation and influence more than a century later.

With handheld camera in tow, our guide descends upon Havana and captures a side of the city not found on postcards. Far removed from the glitz and glamour of tourist attractions, Sauper explores the downtrodden lifeblood of the nation’s capital with a particular focus on its children — passionate preteens with a profound sense of country and culture, as well as the history that created both.

“Cuba was the beginning of the new world,” Sauper notes. “The epicenter of the slave trade, colonization and the globalization of power.” This solemn early narration effectively establishes the film’s sorrowful tone and transports viewers to a forgotten past. Wittingly connecting the birth of cinema with the Cuban War for Independence (1895-98) — including discussions that the sinking of the USS Maine, which brought the U.S. into the conflict, might have been fabricated using the new technology — Sauper highlights the importance of film in Cuban culture. Throughout the documentary, impoverished children are seen watching movies, and their transformative experiences even inspire a few of the youngsters to proclaim their plans to pursue acting as a means of improving their future.

But despite an otherwise impressive scope and vision, Sauper oddly fails to convey the impact and importance of the Cuban Revolution (1953-59). His hasty handling of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, prominent figures who altered the landscape of modern day Cuba, is a significant drawback. Aside from a tribute that Sauper shows citizens paying to Castro upon his death, nothing is said about his political achievements, and all Guevara gets is a brief mention and scattered stills of art displaying his image. Random passersby offering aimless dialogue somehow receive more screen time.

The eschewing of these famous names, however, is consistent with the film’s admirable commitment to the common man. With the exception of a cheerful cameo from part-Cuban actor Oona Chaplin (“Game of Thrones”), there are no Hollywood stars in Epicentro — a fitting choice that enhances the film’s spotlight on Cubans living in their element as well as the ravaging aftereffects of colonialism and international interference. Maintaining the innocence of youth throughout the film’s 100-plus minutes, Sauper even has his tiny subjects at one point act as tourists, sneaking them into a luxury hotel for a swim and a $10 slice of cake.

Though witnessing the youngsters’ squalid existence is challenging, it’s still beautiful to see such proud people make the most of the hand they’re dealt. From the abandoned plant that once processed sugar for Coca-Cola to the American mafioso-owned and -operated hotel, and from the outdated yet beautiful vintage American automobiles to the horse-drawn carriages made from used car parts, Epicentro gives us an uninhibited glimpse of the real Cuba.

Available to rent starting Aug. 28 via grailmoviehouse.com


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