Preview: ¡Viva!

A focus on Cuban filmmaking is a stand-out feature in this year’s festival of Spanish and Latin American culture

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The Spanish and Latin American festival of culture ¡Viva! returns to Manchester for the 24th year, and alongside a packed programme that includes four theatre productions, gallery exhibitions and various talks, workshops and discussions are 19 movies from Spain and Latin America.

A focus on Cuban filmmaking is a stand-out feature in this year’s festival, with the opening weekend focusing on the country, including the UK premiere of Candelaria (main picture) on the opening night. The film is set in Havana in 1994, where an elderly couple, Candelaria and Victor Hugo, scratch out a living during the height of the Cuba’s “special period”, when the country was cut off from the rest of world through trade embargoes and plagued by food and energy shortages.

Following the discovery of a video camera bound up in hotel bedsheets at the laundry where Candelaria works, the couple’s lives take an unexpected turn, both emotionally and economically. Through the lens of the camera they see one another afresh after years of silted marriage, before inadvertently embarking on brief careers in a niche porn industry. Ultimately a tale of survival and love amongst the ruins, it’s played out with a lot of heart but not much humour to lighten the sadness that pervades the film.

Cuba’s capital is also central to Últimos Días En La Habana (Last Days in Havana), in which two men, Miguel and Diego, share a rundown apartment in the city. While introverted and self-repressed Miguel dreams of escaping the squalid conditions he encounters on a daily basis and making it to America, Diego, flamboyant but bedbound and dying of Aids, seems more alive than his ghost of a flatmate.

Their routine lives are disrupted by a cast of characters from the apartment block and Diego’s family who come in at regular intervals to check if he’s dead yet, hoping to secure the apartment after he’s gone. There’s little in the way of dramatic progress in the film, but it’s a captivating tale and a further fascinating insight into the world of Cuba – one that is not often seen on the big screen.

More personal drama, this time from Argentina, can be found in the exquisite La Novia Del Desierto (The Desert Bride), in which fifty-something maid Teresa is forced to make a long journey to secure a new job when her previous employers sell their house. When the bus breaks down en route, Teresa finds herself temporarily stranded in a desert community, where she meets a charismatic travelling salesman. It’s a gentle, beautifully told tale of someone finding both love and hope late in life told with a magical realist edge.

Another stand-out film in the festival is the horror comedy thriller El Bar (The Bar). This fantastic ensemble piece is set, for the first half at least, within the confines of a Madrid café bar where a selection of locals, including a lonely woman addicted to gambling machines, a homeless man and a beardy hipster, suddenly find themselves caught up in a government cover-up of a deadly virus that threatens to engulf the city. Unable to leave the café for fear of being gunned down by special forces the group turn on one another in an effort to survive. It’s tense, exciting and great fun, with a big splattering of watch-through-your-fingers violence and gore thrown in.

Besides themes of revolution, moments of personal enlightenment and love, landscape features heavily in many of the films at the festival, no more so than in the magnificent depictions in the documentary Tempo, a visual delight. Shot over a year, beginning with the birth a child, the film focuses on the region of Galicia in Spain, where the natural landscape and its cultural heritage is under threat. With intimate looks at the day to day life of the people who live there, mixed with stunning aerial shots and a haunting soundtrack, this is a beautiful ode to a region at risk of permanent decline.

With plenty more delights on offer in this year’s selection of films, this is a welcome return for another year of this fantastic festival.

¡Viva!! is at Home, Manchester, 12 April-5 May

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