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A Cuban Legend


A Cuban Legend

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Early in A Cuban Legend, muralist Salvador Gonzalez describes his artistic method: When he begins a painting, he has no idea when he will finish, or what the final result will be. "I have no set plan or outline, I just paint direct," he says. A Cuban Legend director Bette Wanderman apparently took this aesthetic to heart in creating her Gonzalez biopic, a wandering, observation-heavy, momentum-light film apparently made under the philosophy that observing a man's environment is exploring the man himself. Wanderman's hand-held camera follows closely as Gonzalez visits New York City to improvise on a giant canvas, salutes his religion on a huge wall in Philadelphia, and then returns home to Cuba, to a neighborhood that stands out from blocks away because of his paintings, which cover tenement buildings, stores, and walls. Gonzalez is an unusual and fascinating blend of community leader, art teacher, and tribal priest. He leads his neighbors in weekly block parties, where they dance to traditional forms of rumba; for some ritual performances, he paints his dancers to represent the orishas, the gods of the Yoruba tradition. Religion in his area seems to be a blend of comfortable custom, newer Catholic beliefs, and passionate Yoruba worship, and Gonzalez is the lynchpin of it all; when he's away, one local man observes, there are no celebrations or dances. Wanderman observes all of this up close: Her bobbing camera zooms rapidly in on teeth and bellies, hands and musical instruments, as if looking for truth in trivia. But she sometimes seems to miss the larger picture. A Cuban Legend—the title could refer equally to Gonzalez and to his Yoruba belief system, which he explains all too briefly—frequently focuses on long, unsubtitled stretches of singing and dancing, which are compelling and energetic at first. But eventually, the banks of drummers and fields of bouncing dancers all begin to look alike, and Gonzalez himself only contributes in short, laconic stretches. The film comes together in a surprising moment at the end, as all the studies of Gonzalez in his natural habitat begin to add up to a textured picture of his life, and the respect he gets at home is showed in contrast to the eventual fate of his New York City painting. But A Cuban Legend could still use focus and more editing, which is not a good sign for a 79-minute debut feature.