Love Story to Cuba

Evocative, authentic rhythms and stunning Caribbean vistas combine in this lighthearted, fish-out-of-water comedy about family secrets and failing ideals.

As one of the world’s last socialist nations, with endless sunshine and the legacy of everyone’s favourite rebel, Cuba holds a romantic place in the popular imagination, even for many people who have never visited. It’s a country venerated for its health service and high literacy rates, but one whose citizens have to survive on rations, and in which political dissent is brutally stamped out. John Roberts’ (War of the Buttons, Paulie) latest feature length film, Day of the Flowers, uses the country’s stunning scenery and socialist present and past as the backdrop for a universal tale of mismatched siblings finally bonding over their parent’s death.

Rosa, an ideological socialist, and Ailie, a fun-loving shopaholic, are sparring Glaswegian sisters who epitomise chalk and cheese. When Rosa learns that their well-to-do stepmother plans on making a golf trophy of their late father’s ashes, she steals them in a farcical scene and concocts an elaborate plan to scatter them in Trinidad de Cuba on the “Day of the Flowers.” While Rosa is initially dismissive of her sister’s decision to join her, through their arguments, discoveries and misadventures, the two girls uncover the darker side of Rosa’s utopia and their family’s past. Despite its serious expositions on politics and the evolving nature of families, Day of the Flowers is essentially a warm comedy that occasionally runs into cliché, but also provides a love letter to its perennially romantic setting.

At times, the film offers its audience a glimpse of realities that can be deeply moving, and the poverty and desperation of Cuba’s young criminals could have been heartbreaking in heavier hands. Ernesto, a young Cuban who manipulates Rosa’s tourist dollars from her, is a man on the edge of destruction, and his scream of “I’m dying here” is harrowing after the attempted rape of Rosa. It is this juxtaposition with Ailie’s good-time-gal antics, and the comedic cultural misunderstandings of Rosa, that can make the tone of the film uncomfortable at times. As a viewer you are expecting one thing, but something else happens. Roberts acknowledges this difficulty in balancing “looking at things that are quite serious,” and the light touch that remains the essence of Eirene Houston’s script. It’s the script that leads the way because Roberts “used the instincts of the writer: there’s part of it written from experience, and she does tend to see the lighter side of these experiences that are dangerous.” Ernesto’s chilling cry is based on something that Roberts himself heard from a cab driver, and he acknowledges, “you can’t really ignore that,” so that “both these sides are running in parallel.”

Politically Cuba’s history and present system are fascinating, made all the more so by its perpetual diplomatic war with the USA, but interestingly, while Rosa’s admiration for the country is clear, surprisingly there is very little political comment in the film. Landing in Havana, Rosa sighs at “finally setting foot on socialist soil” but quickly turns to bribery and corruption when her father’s ashes are seized by authorities (in contrast to Ailie’s more pragmatic, bureaucratic and ultimately successful approach). And while Roberts admits “we were aware that there was a political story in it,” the appeal of the film very much remains within the angle of the sisters and their individual journey: “The personal story interested me far more than any particular political angle that I might have, so I tried to avoid that.” Furthermore, “every time we tried to beef up the political story, it kind of crushed the lightness out of it; it deflated it and the whole thing became sort of leaden.” Seeing the country and its operations and bureaucracy meant that Roberts “personally wouldn’t be uncritical about [Cuba’s politics]. There are issues there; it’s just that they weren’t part of this particular story.”

It is this focus on Ailie, and Rosa in particular, and her journey from stubborn, almost childlike, naivety, to a more spontaneous, considerate individual, that brought Roberts to Houston’s screenplay in the first place: “I fell in love with the script after about four pages. I liked something about the relationship between the two sisters and the fact that Rosa was in some sort of crisis.” For Roberts, it was that combination of this “serious thing” and the “humour” and “way it was handled very lightly” that attracted him. The jovial script combines with Stephen Warbeck’s original soundtrack and diverse source music to create a wonderful element of escapism in the film while also keeping the story of these girls at its heart. One of the main impressions taken away from the film is of its fantastically evocative music and soundtrack, and this is Roberts’ great success. By combining authentic Cuban sounds with Warbeck’s original score, Day of the Flowers melds these girls’ universal story with the narrative of the country as a whole. With the score, it was “very quickly decided that we wouldn’t go down the route of trying to create a Cuban sound,” because the whole team struggled with its authenticity. “Although we had great players in the session, we couldn’t really replicate that very distinct Cuban sound, so [Warbeck] went down a different route of putting together a small band and scored something that had a slightly Latin feel but that was much less about Cuba and much more about the emotional journey of the sisters.” Here Roberts emphasises the story at the heart of the film, and Cuba’s place as merely its backdrop.

Throughout the film, however, smatterings of lesser-known Cuban acts create a sound that takes you straight to the Caribbean, and the romance that both Ailie and Rosa feel for the country (for very different reasons). For the project, Roberts’ music supervisor “scoped out some of the slightly less well-known Cuban acts: I wanted to find something that’s not Buena Vista because there’s more than that out there.” The result is an eclectic mix of fusion sounds, Reggaton and salsa: “We wanted to get lots of source music to reflect the contemporary Cuba as much as possible.” This contemporary mix is also reflected in the film’s stylised aesthetic, a mash up of 1970s and 1980s Soviet products, clothing and architecture with more stereotypical 1950s design. From his initial recce to the country, Roberts immediately noticed that “there were a lot of material objects from the 1970s and 1980s that were produced in Eastern Europe, which was interesting. We tried to get beyond dealing with the clichés.” As a result, Day of the Flowers is musically and visually surprising, and an eye-opener to everyone who has notions about the country in their head: “I know people will see it and wonder if that is what it’s like in Cuba, but there are far more levels to it and to the culture there.”

In contrast to the introduction of these unexpected and lesser-known elements of Cuban culture, Roberts emphasises the difficulty of capturing Western preconceptions of the country on film: “People have an idea of how they expect Cuba to look visually, and I found that we had to work quite hard to create that look.” Months of location hunting and explorations of the country and its culture gave Roberts a “visual idea,” but one that was so fleeting that “everything I saw and thought would be fantastic in the film, we had to go and recreate. Inevitably the few times that we tried simply to film stuff on the hoof and capture it as it was happening, we were restricted by the way things work in Cuba,” with the consistent need to alert authorities and apply for permits. On Rosa’s escape from Ernesto’s home, the crew managed to achieve one of these off-the-cuff moments as she passes wild horses in the field. It’s a beautiful, romantic and haunting moment that speaks of wildness and freedom, however it contrasts dramatically with the harrowing scenes of Ernesto’s desperate family only moments before.

In spite of these difficulties, and as with many visitors before him, Roberts fell for Cuba’s charms, and this affection is clear throughout Day of the Flowers’ visual language and cinematography: “On one level it’s a very frustrating place but, in terms of filming there, we had a fantastic time, and the people are extraordinary … you get taken into their homes and get to walk into their lives.” For Roberts a major attraction was the lack of marketing and advertising, creating the look of “a city that you almost couldn’t get anywhere else in the world.” Describing billboards and street markings as “the stuff that destroys the look of the place,” he says that their absence created a blank canvas out of the cityscape that really allowed for beautiful imagery and framing. And while filming was restrictive at times, especially when posed with the problem of capturing typical Cuban scenes, Roberts expresses surprise about “the amount of access that we had. I was very surprised [because] we were able to witness all these areas that aren’t necessarily regarded as the proudest parts of the Cuban experience – people’s kind of drab lives and the more run-down places.” From a cultural viewpoint, the Cubans were so co-operative because “it’s very important to them right now that Cuba is seen as being open to that kind of creative mindset.” Ultimately the film’s lighthearted treatment was its saving grace because “in the past the only films that seemed to get made there were about people trying to escape the system, and ours wasn’t about that – it was a much lighter treatment.”

However, the combination of weighty subject matter and superficial treatment is hard at times. And while Charity Wakefield is endearing as the younger, less difficult sister Ailie, the character of Rosa is so irritating at times that it is a challenge for Eva Birthistle to elicit enough empathy from the audience to ally viewers truly with her transition. This might be due to the slightly more incredulous elements of the script, which somewhat suspend disbelief, but it’s also down to the occasionally difficult tone that the film has taken. In his first major film role, world renowned dancer Carlos Acosta is, however, funny and charmingly understated as the well-meaning Cuban tour guide and family man, although the chemistry between Rosa and Acosta’s Tomas is fraught. While “the part was originally written with him in mind,” Roberts says, “the fact that we got him was kind of fortuitous,” and, although he plays a genial, easy-going character, Acosta’s quiet performance is one of the film’s major bonuses. Roberts’ initial concerns on casting a stage performer were quickly allayed: “He didn’t want to be the weak link, [but] the very first time we did a quick read I knew straight away. It was very natural to him. His instincts are absolutely of the screen actor, his movements are very little but they are very focused, so I’ve got to say I didn’t have to do anything.” Given his successful career as a dancer, “there’s no doubt that he can hold an audience”, but the contrast between performances is marked. “The weird thing is that he [performs] in front of 30,000 people at the O2 or the Royal Ballet and has to make these huge gestures, but actually here he has to do the reverse, with the camera five feet away, and do very little. He felt within his comfort zone with the part, but the truth is that, the few times he had the chance to push at the edges of that, you could see where he could go as an actor.” And while Acosta fans might be disappointed at the lack of his famous dancing, this was a conscious decision to explore this new avenue: “My instinct was that he wasn’t playing a great dancer, and we didn’t want it to be about how well he danced, and he got that. I think it would’ve been a bit cheesy because it wasn’t the part.”

Herein lies the crux of Day of the Flowers, in its respect of the story and its characters while painting a rough view of the world around them. This is not a gritty, realist portrayal of the hardships and political difficulties of life in Cuba, but it is a universal, often told story about family, friendship and the secrets that lie hidden in our pasts. With a wonderful soundtrack, and capturing Cuba’s exceptional and unique beauty, Day of the Flowers creates a romantic escape with a recognisable storyline at its heart.

Day of the Flowers is released this November.

Ruby Beesley