DVD The Passionate Painter in Havana Part 2 || Alvaro Castagnet

In the second part of his Cuban adventure, Alvaro turns his attention to the people of its capital city and its vibrant street life.

Much has happened since the first instalment and the rapprochement with the US means that the island’s days of crumbling glory are surely numbered. If this is something that appeals, visit now, or maybe buy these films as a fitting memorial. If you’re a Cuban, however, you might think that much-repaired 1950’s automobiles and flaking stucco are a high price to pay for a romantic dream. Maybe you’d prefer a new car and some anonymous malls.

Alvaro is an enthusiastic demonstrator and a great talker. For some, his style of presentation might grate but, for me, he always manages to stay within the border of being irritating and he’s immensely quotable: “We need to get to know the people … absorb the atmosphere … then we paint”, “It’s a mess with order to it … we need to avoid complexity”. These nuggets of wisdom (and they are nuggets) relate not only to the technical details but to the general approach. There’s one place, in a particularly complex scene near the end of the film, where Alvaro works in silence for a minute or two and it comes as something of a shock. Normally, he’s talking about the scene, what he’s looking at and for and how he’s working with water, brushes and colour. He’s a confident painter and this often masks very considerable skill. His remark that he needs to envision the finished result before he starts is telling. It looks improvised but, like the music that pervades the film, it’s actually very carefully structured.

A word about that music. Alvaro often moves with it and he’s also, he says, painting with it. Certainly, there’s a rhythm to the way he works that the music both drives and points up. I think it’s also worth saying that the way the soundtrack is handled here is worthy of top-flight documentary–making. It’s not, as is usually the case, something that’s added later – and which will either enhance the viewing experience or annoy the hell out of you. In two of the demonstrations, there’s a live band playing and this, the commentary and the wild track (the background noises) are perfectly balanced. When Alvaro speaks, the music fades ever so slightly so that his voice is never muffled, but the sound is always a homogeneous whole. On that score, I’d class this as the best film I’ve seen from APV.

Street life is complex and real life doesn’t always appear in a neatly balanced composition. As he did with the first film, Alvaro assembles his images from their component elements. Figures are moved into a more balanced group, details are highlighted and focus shifted. His loose style means that fine detail is never there: “I’m not interested in making a portrait”. For me, this looseness makes this a slightly less satisfying film than the first part as some of the groups start to look a bit similar – I wish he perhaps wouldn’t strait-jacket them quite so much into a single personal style. Nevertheless, there’s no doubting the artistry, especially in the composition and the handling of complex and often difficult lighting, where Alvaro is pretty much pitch-perfect.

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