A cocky Cuban heel gets his come-uppance in The King of Havana (El rey de La Habana), Agusti Villaronga‘s full-blooded adaptation of the lurid literary novel by Pedro Juan Gutierrez. A two-hour immersion in poverty, squalor, sex, violence, prostitution and death that brings to sordid life Castro’s capitol during the nightmarishly tough ‘Special Period’ of the mid-1990s, it certainly isn’t for viewers of a sensitive disposition but appeals as a lively, adults-only commercial prospect for Spanish-speaking audiences worldwide.
Premiering in competition at San Sebastian, it provoked sniffy responses from some international critics and programmers before scoring a surprise Best Actress win for the previously unknown Yordanka Ariosa — beating out Freeheld´s Oscar-tipped powerhouse Julianne Moore and Ellen Page. Five years ago Villaronga’s previous feature Black Bread (Pa negre) landed the exact same honor via Nora Navas, and went on to score nine wins at the Goyas — Spain’s equivalent of the Oscars — including Best Picture.
An extravagantly raunchy wallow in sordid poverty.
A box-office tally of $3.5 million was enough to rank the 1944-set tale, also adapted from a novel, among the top seven domestic performers of its year. A Spanish-Dominican Republic co-production shot in the Caribbean nation, The King of Havana could with suitable marketing easily outstrip that figure, following its mid-October Spain bow.
The seventh theatrical feature from Majorca-born writer-director Villaronga, it’s a belated first big-screen version of Gutierrez’s work. Hailed as “the Cuban Henry Miller” and a master of “Dirty Realism,” dubbed “the Bukowski of Havana” by no less an eminence than the late Roberto Bolano, Gutierrez only moved to the capital at age 37 but is now acknowledged as the voice of the city’s most populous and run-down district, Central Havana.
A densely-packed slum of more than 150,000 souls, Central Havana provides the vividly dilapidated backdrop for the adventures of Reynaldo (Maykol David Tortolo), aka Reynaldito, or ‘Rey’ (“king”) for short. Emerging from a two-year spell in juvie — he was wrongly convicted of the double homicide that kicks off proceedings on an arrestingly chaotic note — Rey returns to his old neighborhood and quickly gets down to the one thing he does best: energetic intercourse.
Blessed with an outsize member — glimpsed briefly in its flaccid state — and a cheeky smile, Reynaldito quickly charms both the female and male residents of one picturesquely crumbling block. Magda (Ariosa) is a superstitious, witchcraft-savvy sex-worker with a mainly elderly clientele, boasting “I’ve had 500 cocks inside me since I was eight and will have 500 more before I die.” Magda and Rey strike up a turbulent on-off relationship, from which he seeks respite in the gentle arms of the pre-op transsexual next door, nicknamed Yunisleidi (Hector Medina Valdes).
Congenitally workshy and brutally selfish, Rey ambles through life on a wave of egotistical, happy-go-lucky amorality, stealing from those less fortunate than himself without a second thought. And there’s no shortage of poverty-stricken folk to choose from, this being the ‘Special Period’ when communist Cuba was hit hard — first by the collapse of its giant supporter, the Soviet Union, then by tightening sanctions imposed by its near neighbor and implacable ideological foe, the United States of America.
Denied permission (unsurprisingly) to shoot in the actual Havana, Villaronga and company instead used Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic as a stand-in, with convincing and atmospheric results via Josep M. Civit‘s widescreen cinematography. The actors, who are either Cuban or skilled in mimicking the Cuban accent, strike a suitable note of mildly stylized exaggeration — though newcomer Tortolo doesn’t seem to have been cast for any special thespian abilities.
Colorful and energetic if nose-rubbingly unpleasant at times, The King of Havana struggles to contain its volatile cocktail of moods and tones, with Villaronga’s functional direction lacking the flair and oomph which the dynamite material truly demands. With many scenes unfolding in dark interior spaces, the telenovela-like story could easily be repurposed as a theater play, perhaps even an extravagant musical to fully dramatize the larger-than-life goings-on.
The apocalyptic threat of an El Nino cyclone becomes just another hazard that the hungry, infinitely resourceful denizens of Central Havana must cope with. The finale is especially torrid and extreme in its nastiness, to the extent that some may feel in need of a quick shower afterwards.
But by this stage the story has revealed itself as a fundamentally moral affair in which the limitations of the macho stereotype have been unflinchingly exposed and indicted. And to complain about the melodramatic proceedings being “excessive” is a bit like quibbling that rain is too wet. This is the compellingly horrible world of Gutierrez, an acquired taste but one that convincingly conjures a unique place at a unique time, one where “too much” was/is never enough.
Production companies: Pandora Cinema, Tusitala, Esencia Films
Cast: Maykol David Tortolo, Yordanka Ariosa, Hector Medina Valdes, Ileana Wilson, Jose Maria Sanchez
Director / Screenwriter: Agusti Villaronga, based on the novel by Pedro Juan Gutierrez
Producers: Luisa Matienzo, Celines Toribio
Cinematographer: Josep M Civit
Production designer: Lorelei Sanz
Costume designer: Maria Gil
Editor: Raul Roman
Composer: Joan Valent
Casting: Libia Batista
Sales: Filmax, Barcelona
No Rating, 124 minutes