“I’d kiss the ground you walked on if you lived in a cleaner neighborhood,” a pianist named Chico tells a singer named Rita midway through Chico & Rita, a Spanish film in contention for 2011’s Best Animated Feature Oscar. He’s flirting with her, but he’s also pleading with her, and simultaneously chiding her, reminding that her talent could bring her better things in life if she let it. In his eyes, those better things include him, if only the two of them could get in sync. But it never seems to be the right time for the two young talents, who are kept apart by pride, ambition, circumstance, conniving outside love interests, and many more factors as the decades pass.
Chico & Rita opens in the modern era, as an aged, weary Chico shines shoes in his native Cuba. Then a song heard on the radio—a hit he wrote and recorded with Rita in their youth—carries him back to 1948 Havana, where they first met. From the start, they’re perpetually swinging back and forth on the emotional spectrum, starting on opposite ends, and only meeting briefly in the middle of their arcs before parting again. They like each other on first glance, and he pursues, but she proudly spurns him. Then once she hears him play, she tumbles into bed with him, but a previous girlfriend arrives to spoil their idyll. When she regrets her reaction to that conflict and returns to him, she catches him at an embarrassingly inopportune time. And so it goes, as the film follows them up the ladder of fame, to the booming Latin-jazz scene in New York City, then on to Hollywood, to Las Vegas, and around the world. Sometimes the barriers between them are contrived and overly neat, hitting with clockwork inconvenience, but the film’s vivid colors and integral musical score heighten the emotions, and render the film more iconic than realistic. As co-director Fernando Trueba says, the story is meant to mimic a bolero, a tragic love song. It’s all verve and pathos; the text itself is an afterthought.
It’s also texturally gorgeous. The liquid-smooth animation seems rotoscoped in places, particularly in a series of Triplets Of Belleville-esque rollicking car chases, where the camera spins and pans to capture the veering vehicles. The characters are simply rendered, but when it comes to capturing cities and scenes, the cinematography takes on the color and detail of a Mexican street mural. Trueba is the veteran filmmaker behind Belle Epoque and Calle 54, and he brings in a demonstrable love for ’40s and ’50s jazz, when Cuban stars joined their American counterparts to create a new genre. (The film diverges at one point to take in the death of real-life Latin-jazz pioneer Chano Pozo.) But Trueba’s co-director, designer, artist, and first-time filmmaker Javier Mariscal, might take more credit for the film’s stunning look. Like last year’s dark-horse Best Animated Feature nominee The Illusionist, Chico & Rita accomplishes more with splendid design and a compelling tone than with its thin story. But like The Illusionist, it’s a heady wonder for fans of the music, the era, or visual creative art in general.