Latin Film Fest

Cuban sensations Los Zafiros warrant screentime, but with a little more soul

The story of the Cuban vocal group Los Zafiros is decidedly cinematic. Four handsome lads from Havana's working-class Cayo Hueso neighborhood formed the group in 1962. Accompanied by a guitarist, the singers perfected a swinging synthesis of American doo-wop and Cuban rumba. Los Zafiros shot to fame on the island, toured abroad, and fell into spectacular ruin. Left behind in the wake of the pro-revolutionary Nueva Trova folk music movement, and victims of their own heavy partying habits, Los Zafiros disappeared from the scene. Two of the singers were dead before they turned 40. And a legend was born.

Los Zafiros: Music From the Edge of Time, to be screened at the Miami Latin Film Festival Friday, is the third film on the group to be shown in South Florida. Jorge Dalton's outstanding half-hour documentary Herido de Sombras (screened at Miami-Dade Community College in 1994) told the Zafiros story through the memories of surviving group member Eduardo "Chino" Hernandez, at that point indigent and infirm (he has since passed away). Dalton, a young filmmaker who grew up in Cuba, created a graceful and bittersweet documentary that is a mesmerizing portrait of an era as well as a band.

Next came Los Zafiros: Locura Azul, a feature film produced in Cuba by Miami resident Hugo Cancio, the son of Miguel Cancio, the only member of Los Zafiros still with us today. The movie was a huge hit in Havana, spawning a renewed Zafiros craze. Locura Azul had a Miami premiere and went on the international film festival circuit, but failed to achieve widespread distribution. Too bad, because it conveyed the musical excitement and dramatic tension of Los Zafiros and their times, together with a considerable dose of Cuban kitsch. The movie featured an all-Cuban cast and director, Manuel Herrera, who described Locura Azul as "part comedy, part melodrama."

Los Zafiros: Music From the Edge of Time is a feature-length documentary that lacks the appeal of either of these previous films. Directed by Lorenzo DeStefano, a Los Angeles-based writer, filmmaker, and photographer, it fails to tell the Zafiros' made-for-the-screen story in an absorbing way.

Former Zafiro Miguel Cancio is the main character in the film, cast amid an endless parade of talking heads, too many who have nothing particularly significant to say about Los Zafiros. The viewer is introduced to Cancio in his Miami home early on, and he takes center stage prematurely. Before we've been told enough about Los Zafiros to really have a sense of who they were -- either musically or personally -- and to be intrigued by their tale, or even to understand Cancio's importance in the story, we're joining him on a weepy nostalgia trip back to Havana.

Cancio is a charming, dapper man whose star quality is still apparent. But he seems stilted and unnatural in set-up scenes with guitarist Manuel Galbán. (The second of two guitarists who played with Los Zafiros, Galbán has gained recognition outside of Cuba for his work with Ry Cooder, most recently on the masterfully cool CD Mambo Sinuendo.) Cancio and Galbán often look uncomfortable strolling around Havana followed by the camera, pointing out places Los Zafiros frequented and talking about their lost colleagues, singers Chino, Ignacio, and Kike. Scenes like one where they visit the now seedy, once lively bar where Los Zafiros hung out add color to the narrative and some historical perspective. But by the time they've reached a pier and Cancio says, "Kike and Chino used to swim out here," the storytelling device becomes exasperating.

At 90 minutes, Zafiros contains too much filler. While the film includes footage of a silly, impromptu descarga with Cancio, Galbán, and friends playing silverware and singing about their lobster meal, it tiptoes around issues central to the Zafiros story and its context. Cancio is seen crying more than once in the film, but there's insufficient explanation of his post-Zafiros stint as a street sweeper and his subsequent exile to Miami. He looks out onto Havana from a balcony and sobs, presumably regretting the deterioration of the city and the turn of events in his own life spurred by the Castro regime. This probably would not be clear to anyone unfamiliar with the Cuban experience. That alcohol was central to the group's demise, and the theory that it was blackballed because its musical style was too American for the revolution, are not sufficiently elaborated.

Zafiros is inclusive, giving relatives, friends, neighbors of the band, and fellow Cuban artists and radio personalities from Miami a chance to comment. It's nice that so many were given a forum, and some, like singer Rosita Fornes, provide interesting details. But there are too many testimonials that seem superfluous, and the film is not constructed in a way in which they build momentum.

What's really attractive about Music From the Edge of Time is that it features a fantastic array of archival footage and photos. The scenes in which Cancio and Galbán perform Zafiros songs with a group of Havana musicians, including bass player Orlando "Cachaito" Lopez of Buena Vista Social Club fame, are fun and do a lot to explain the allure of the Sixties group. As such, this Zafiros movie is most recommended for die-hard Cuban music aficionados, nostalgia buffs, and those eager for images of Havana, past and present.

Walter, a character in Sandra Gugliotta's film Un Día de Suerte, has one of the most convincing lines in recent movie history: "What shitty times." In this Argentine director's debut, a film that feels so much like life itself, Walter refers not to the current war and its reverb but to Buenos Aires in 1999. A blackout seized the city for weeks then, and Gugliotta's story of four restless friends plays out in this apocalyptic atmosphere of darkness, demonstrations, and despair.

Elsa and her friend Laura take what jobs they can get, handing out vitamin samples in morning traffic and conducting surveys on the street. Elsa is smitten with an Italian tourist she spent one night with before he returned home, and is trying to save enough to go to Italy. The girls, who are in their twenties, hang out with Walter, Elsa's sometime boyfriend, and Laura's crush Toni, spending every night gleefully smoking dope and taking pills. The foursome casually turns to crime to make money, forging prescriptions and selling them and charging merchandise to stolen credit cards. Elsa is so intent on realizing her dream ("I want to live in a place that I like, have money -- a little, and be with someone I love") that she resorts to sleeping with her sleazy boss at the street marketing job and stealing his wallet to make the money she needs.

Gugliotta uses a gritty cinéma vérité style to capture a stark picture of a decadent and anarchic Buenos Aires. Yet the close personal relationships that have always characterized life in that city remain intact, as shown in sweet scenes of Elsa with her financially troubled father and dotty Italian grandfather. As Elsa, the sloe-eyed Valentina Bassi delivers a natural performance: a real girl with brains, stylish in her baggy jeans and T-shirts. The rest of the cast is equally convincing.

When Elsa finally gets to Italy, it's not surprising that, as in life, things don't turn out the way she planned.

In Volverás, the prospect of a trip abroad similarly marks a turning point in the lives of two brothers. This time the setting is Barcelona, where Ignacio (Unax Ugalde) is an architecture student who is about to leave on a fellowship to study in Los Angeles. A stylish and comfortable life has been preordained for him by his father, also an architect. Ignacio lives with his parents in a modern house, wears designer clothes, and with his girlfriend, also an architecture student, frequents trendy restaurants.

A chance meeting with his estranged brother, Carlos (Tristán Ulloa, who starred in Sex and Lucia), changes everything. Carlos lives in the underbelly of the city, playing cards and pulling petty scams and robberies. He is in debt and on the run. Ignacio gets pulled into the violent world of his needy, manipulative brother. When he comes out burned, he is able to recognize a few things about himself and what he was running away from. As Ignacio falls further into Carlos's world, the subtle hand of the director makes thestory credible, and the intense but measured performances by the cast are engrossing up until the movie's surprising end.

Sponsor Content


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >