Why not change the title of The Cuban to A Health Officer and a Gentleman? The film features a swan song of a performance by Louis Gossett, Jr. as an aging musician who piques the interest of a kindly med student. Gossett, who won an Oscar for playing the ornery Gunnery Sergeant in An Officer and a Gentleman, is simply wonderful. He plays Luis Garcia, a musician nearing his final days in a long-term care facility. Mina (Ana Golja) plays the plucky student eager to rejuvenate his spirit. Buoyed by Latin rhythms and the spicy flavours of Cuban cuisine, The Cuban plays a familiar tune. However, its odd couple tale about embracing life through its last days is often sweetly endearing.
Latin tunes give the retirement home a lift when 19-year-old Mina accepts the challenge of feeding Luis his meals. Luis, who has dementia and Alzheimer’s, simply won’t eat the nutritiously bland food the home provides. He won’t talk, either, and simply sits in the dark. (Actually, everyone in The Cuban sits in the dark. This is one of those Canadian productions that can’t seem to afford electricity beyond source lights.) Mina notices a poster on his wall and it inspires her to hum a Latin tune. The gentleman who once was cranky and absent becomes buoyant and alert.
The Cuban wafts through the fragments of Luis’s mind as he recalls a former flame, Elena, who strikingly resembles Mina. The few snippets that Luis can convey to Mina inspire her to research his past and learn more. Her interest in Luis’s story is cute at first, but soon overwhelms her drolly-awkward dates with Kris (Giacomo Gianniotti). Mina does things like grab a Cubano mid-date, leave Kris hanging mid-burger, and stick Kris with the bill.
Mina’s Motivation (or lack thereof)
Mina becomes irrationally obsessed with Luis. Under the disapproving eyes of her supervisor (Lauren Holly in Wendy Crewson in Away from Her mode), Mina administers alternative treatments. She cooks daily menus of Cuban delights for Luis and brings some Latin jazz to enliven his lunches. Why Mina obsesses over Luis so compulsively remains a mystery. The Cuban under-develops Mina’s motivation. (Although her fascination with Luis often seems more logical than her interest in Kris and his in her.) Golja doesn’t create many layers to the character, either, instead leaving Mina a wide-eyed, almost annoyingly earnest saviour. However, Luis responds to her attention. At the film’s heart is a lesson on elderly care, reacting to their needs, and attending to their comforts. It’s about seeing them as people rather than patients. The latter point is notably poignant when watched amid the cold statistics of the COVID crisis.
Yet if the pandemic teaches us anything about long term care facilities, it’s that they have staffing issues. The Cuban admittedly reflects this sentiment. Nobody seems to notice that Mina is gone for endless stretches due to her extended lunch dates with Luis. Cranky Nurse Baker, ever the apathetic caregiver, merely awards Mina a tut-tutting for playing music. However, when Mina brings some friends to stage a concert with Luis, her aunt Bano (Shohreh Aghdashloo), the home’s administrator, is mostly mad to see her niece with a white boyfriend.
Bano, who formerly worked as a doctor back in Afghanistan, often reminds Mina of her roots. The Cuban signals Mina’s ethnicity frequently as Bano asserts her weariness about Mina’s choices. This tension provides the film’s other logical gap. Bano frequently references the constrictions of her life in Kabul, particularly when it comes to love. Despite the narrative rift, everything unfolds as expected.
The Cuban plays two tunes, but they’re ultimately duelling banjos. The story about Mina’s Afghan roots has little to do with Luis’s Cuban past. Mina’s fascination with Cuban culture at times treads othering and exoticism. Her mastery of Cuban cooking and Latin music is as much about asserting her self-worth as rehabilitating Luis. These contradictions prove frustrating, since elements of both storylines often inject the film with its finer moments.
For example, Mina encourages Bano to embrace the freedoms afforded by life in Canada. The Cuban affords Aghdashloo a touching moment in which Bano yields to her niece’s advice. She reclines with a glass of wine and some Afghan music while recalling love lost. However, The Cuban doesn’t utilise Aghdashloo to her potential, affording her few moments beyond this tender close-up to shine. A pivotal argument between Mina and Bano, for example, plays in long shot with both actors seated before a window. The lighting masks the emotion of the scene, robbing Aghdashloo’s expressive eyes the chance to raise the stakes. One doesn’t feel all the words Mina and Bano spit from afar. Moments like this exchange, moreover, illustrate how Aghdashloo and Gossett simply outperform their younger co-star. One can only imagine the potential if the film featured Bano tending to the Cuban, encountering memories of lost love together.
The Spice of Life
The Cuban nevertheless finds quiet power in the moments that Luis and Bano embrace life individually. The great performances by Gossett and Aghdashloo fuel The Cuban — and the spicy Latin rhythms certainly help! Director Sergio Navarretta, notably expanding his cinematic canvas since his debut with the micro-budget indie Looking for Angelina, bridges the actors’ emotional arcs through music and creates some visually striking set pieces centered around the Latin beats. Cinematographer Celiana Cárdenas contrasts the drab interiors of the retirement home with the vibrant nightclubs in Luis’s memories. A trip to a Latin club in the film’s final act, meanwhile, injects gorgeous colour and energy to The Cuban’s palette. Navarretta’s film evokes pleasures that are the spice of life, like a familiar tune or flavour, as Luis finds peace. Perhaps these comforts explain Mina’s behaviour by the film’s bittersweet end.