THE CUBAN – Review by Liz Braun

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A nursing home aide and an elderly musician forge an unexpected bond in The Cuban, a sweet-natured drama about love, memory and music from director Sergio Navarretta. Degrassi star Ana Golja plays Mina, a pre-med student working part-time at a nursing home, and Lou Gossett Jr. co-stars as one of the patients in her care. He is Luis Garcia, a once-famous Cuban guitarist nearing the end of his life and withdrawing further every day thanks to dementia and Alzheimer’s. He won’t eat and he never speaks.

Mina finds out that Luis is a fan of Cuban jazz, and one day she hums a few bars of El Canonero when she brings his dinner. A light immediately goes on behind Luis’ eyes. The music has obviously stirred some memories and Mina decides to see if she can help Luis further.

Can music help him combat Alzheimer’s? Soon enough, she is playing Cuban jazz classics for Luis and
even cooking Cuban food for him. Luis slowly starts communicating with her. He begins eating again, shares some memories with her and generally makes a return to the land of the living.

Conflict arises. Mina lives with her strict aunt (the entirely luminous Shohreh Aghdashloo) and with her aunt’s expectations of her — to work hard and study hard and become a doctor. Auntie is not happy when Mina begins a romantic relationship with a Ph.D. student (Giacomo Gianniotti). She’s not happy when Mina breaks the rules at the nursing home to improve Luis’ situation and she’s not happy when Mina becomes absorbed in music herself.

In the background to all this activity, Lou Gossett Jr. — who is 84 — keeps himself busy by stealing every scene he’s in, even though the role of Luis has almost no dialogue. As a man slowly being reunited with his memory and his inner life, he commands the screen.

Mina performs a few songs along the way in her coming-of-age journey, including a version of Quizas, Quizas, Quizas; Ana Golja does her own singing here and she is terrific.

The Cuban includes Lauren Holly, Shiva Negar and Tabby Johnson in the cast; there’s a tad too much uplift available for this viewer, but it’s a definite crowd pleaser and has various festival awards to prove it, including the Audience Award from the L.A. Pan African Film Festival this year. And it’s easy on the eyes and ears. Celiana Cardenas’ cinematography has already been recognized (at the Whistler Film Festival) and Music Producer Roberto Occhipinti may wind up sparking a whole new resurgence in appreciation for Cuban jazz.

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Liz Braun

Liz Braun has contributed entertainment stories in print and on radio and TV in Canada for 30 years. She served as film critic for the Toronto Sun and for the Postmedia chain of newspapers.