Live by Night
The key question behind Live by Night isn’t so much “Why did they bother?” as “What went wrong?”
"Narcissus, at high tide, escaped without wings."
Those are the final words of 20th century Cuban poet Jose Lezama Lima's "Muerta de Narciso," a poem excerpted throughout "Sin Alas," writer/director Ben Chace's impressive feature debut. The first American film to be shot in Cuba since 1959, "Sin Alas" is about memories and dreams, flashbacks and continuums, fragmented timelines and piled-up detritus. It's about the way light looks in Havana in the morning, the way echoes carry through doorways, the way the surf crashes over the sea wall. It's about rambunctious street life, music and voices and eccentric characters, playing out against the backdrop of gorgeous crumbling pre-Revolution buildings, all of which still have stories to tell, messages to pass on. "Sin Alas" has a lot going on, both plot-wise and stylistically, and it often gets quite theatrical, but the overall effect is that of a pure and beautiful simplicity. There is nothing in the way between the story and its impact.
Luis Vargas (Carlos Padrón), a 70-year-old former arts journalist, opens the newspaper one morning and sees an obituary for a once-famous dancer, Isabela Munoz (Yulisleyvís Rodrigues). Back in 1967, Luis and Isabella had a brief but very intense affair. News of her death stirs the depths of his soul, memories—all fragmented and hallucinatory—crowding before his eyes. He has been dreaming of Isabela, the same dream every night, and in the dream, a song is playing. He does not know what the song is and he tells his friend Ovilio (Mario Limonta) about it. The two friends set out on a quest to find out the name of the song. (This musical motif, composed by Robert Pycior, recurs throughout "Sin Alas," sometimes played with mournful cellos, sometimes with pounding bongos underneath, sometimes with single piano notes sounding like a child's music box. Music is not used in "Sin Alas" as lazy filler or to manipulate audience emotions. The music is sweepingly dramatic: it's an old-fashioned score.)
"I need to get this melody out of my head so I can rest," says Luis to Ovilio. That quest leads him down pathways of memory that he might have wished to avoid, but once the floodgates open, there's no stopping it. Luis grew up in a wealthy family of sugar-planters, and his parents fled Cuba when Castro took over. He, a young man of 20, stayed behind. There are mysteries in his childhood, things glimpsed when he was a boy, not understood.