Fueled by a delightfully simple sci-fi premise, The Extraordinary Journey of Celeste Garcia is an earthbound comedy with a keen grasp of human foibles and societal woes. The story of a planetarium guide who’s offered the chance for interplanetary relocation unfolds with an unexpected matter-of-factness that proves to be its strength. Arturo Infante, a leading screenwriter in Cuba (The Silly Age, Habana Eva), takes the helm of his first feature with an assured visual style, one that’s more interested in workaday Havana and its unsung residents than outer space.
His control over the mechanics of this speculative tale don’t match his perceptive regard for his characters, though, and the heroine, however charmingly played by Maria Isabel Diaz, is generally too passive to ignite deep engagement. But at its most convincing, the gently captivating movie combines a playfulness with astute insights.
Smart and charming, if not entirely satisfying.
Diaz (Almodovar’s Volver, Soderberg’s Che: Part One) stars as Celeste Garcia, a former schoolteacher who clearly enjoys her work guiding kids through Havana’s planetarium. As to the rest of her life — a distracted son (Roberto Espinosa), a sniping, gossipy sister (Veronica Diaz Viera) — a lack of inspiration and meaningful connection is evident. You can see it not just in Celeste’s weary gaze but also in the grays and beiges of her work uniform and the faded grandeur of her apartment building, with Alain Ortiz’s production design and Celia Ledon’s costumes achieving a synchronous, expressive drabness.
In contrast, Infante and his DP, Javier Labrador, conjure something magical from their location work at the Havana Planetarium, signaling the otherworldly events about to transpire. The first weird thing to grab Celeste’s attention is a middle-of-the-night to-do involving unusual-looking strangers at her neighbor’s apartment. A larger sense of suspense grips the (lovingly captured) neighborhood as working people await a government communique, expecting the latest increase in the cost of goods.
Instead, with a comic lack of fanfare, a TV announcer reveals that visitors from the planet Gryok have been living among Cuba’s people for years, and, in the next phase of the exchange program, they’re returning the favor by transporting selected earthlings to their home in the Taurus constellation. The jaunty score accentuates the way Havana’s residents take this development in stride. When Celeste heads for Gryok, her family sees her off as though she’s embarking on a holiday cruise.
Yet however unfulfilling Celeste’s personal life may be, at first she shows no interest in applying for a spot on one of the spaceships to Gryok. She’s selected nonetheless, thanks to an invitation from the neighbor who turned out to be Gryokian, not Russian. Fast-tracked past the vetting process, with a guaranteed job on the distant planet doing what she loves, teaching, Celeste spruces herself up and packs for the trip, carting along her cherished globe — a meaningful emblem as well as a heavy-handed metaphor that’s used against her as a weapon not once but twice.
Writer-director Infante defies genre expectations by plunging Celeste into a realm of government bureaucracy, not whiz-bang technology or dazzlingly advanced beings. An unused high school is the way station where she and some of her fellow travelers await the spacecraft that will deliver them to a new life. In a sly touch, there are rumors of better interim facilities for the country’s esteemed artists and athletes. And when the PA system spouts reminders of the greatness and perfection of Gryok, Infante suggests that some modes of indoctrination might be inescapable wherever you go in the universe.
The movie takes on a sitcommy tone as Celeste bonds with her three roomies at the way station: mouthy Perlita (Yerlin Perez), pregnant Mirta (Tamara Castellanos) and singer Hector Francisco (Nestor Jimenez), the film’s most poignant character. On Gryok he aims to escape the “nepotism, mediocrity and cliques” that he knows have thwarted his musical career. Less affecting, and somewhat clumsily orchestrated, is the theme of domestic abuse that ties together Celeste’s backstory and the desperate situation of a young couple who are trying to board an interplanetary transport. The attentions of her neighborhood butcher (Omar Franco), another resident of the way station, surprise Celeste, and though this thread takes on a crucial role in the narrative, it never quite feels fully integrated into the many-stranded tale.
Still, the idea of renewal in middle age and beyond, in a place where regrets lose their power, is clearly and tenderly expressed through Celeste and her new friends. If the film is less satisfying than it might be, and wraps up a bit too softly, it’s because the central character is more a passenger, literal and figurative, in her own story. Things happen to her; people (and aliens) choose her. Diaz easily suggests why Celeste is worth choosing, but a bumpier ride might have made her journey more truly extraordinary.
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Discovery)
Production companies: Producciones De La 5ta Avenida, Fassb Filmproduktion Gmbh & Co. KG, Match Factory Productions
Cast: Maria Isabel Diaz, Omar Franco, Nestor Jimenez, Yerlin Perez, Tamara Castellanos, Veronica Diaz Viera, Andrea Doimeadios, Reinier Diaz, Daysi Quintana, Beatriz Vinas, Roberto Espinosa
Director: Arturo Infante
Screenwriter: Arturo Infante
Producers: Claudia Calvino, Ernst Fassbender
Director of photography: Javier Labrador
Production designer: Alain Ortiz
Costume designer: Celia Ledon
Editor: Joanna Montero
Composers: Magda Rosa Galban, Juan Antonio Leyva
Casting director: Marucha Hernandez
Sales: The Match Factory