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EPICENTRO (2020) review

August 27, 2020



written by: Hubert Sauper
produced by: Gabriele Kranzelbinder, Daniel Marquet, Martin Marquet & Barbara Pichler
directed by: Hubert Sauper
rated: not rated
runtime: 108 min.
U.S. release date: August 28, 2020 (virtual)


Back in January (which feels like a year ago), “Epicentro”, an immersive and affectionate look at life in post-colonial Cuba screened at Sundance, where it won World Cinema Grand Jury Prize and it’s a reminder that the best way to get to know a place, a culture, is to go there and get to know the location’s inhabitants. While this documentary from Oscar-nominated, Austrian-born filmmaker Hubert Sauper is observantly shot, its most memorable moments can be found during the times in which viewers are invited to simply listen in on conversations and walk with the people the director encounters. He lets them be and because of that, they are seen and heard, and therefore we are enlightened. As Sauper develops a working relationship with them, it feels like the audience does as well.

It may seem like “Epicentro” is kind of all over the place thematically, but if the goal is capturing current Cuban life, what Sauper (“Darwin’s Nightmare”) winds up doing is representing on the screen how, like in real life, the subjects and topics can ebb and flow while at the same time offering a tangential connection to Cuba’s past and present. It may take some (not much) acclimation, but once you’re on board with the style and approach here, the viewing experience becomes alive, transcendental, and rewarding.




On that note, the most rewarding offerings of Sauper’s film is the privilege of getting to meet and know Leonelis Arango Salas and Annielys Pelladito Zaldivar, two prepubescent girls who exude a contagious amount of spunk. Sauper’s interaction with these two throughout the film – specifically the charismatic Leonelis, who aspires to be an actress, finds “Epicentro” at its most absorbing. The entire film has an air of authenticity to it, but the naturalness of these girls on camera is a gift. Whether Leonelis is reciting to the camera her knowledge of Cuban’s history of foreign interference (from Spain then the United States) or giggling as takes an evening swim in a swanky hotel pool she snuck into on a hot summer night, her presence is a gift. Considering her confidence and poise, I wouldn’t be surprised if one day we did see this talented girl in front of the camera again.

The inclusion of actor Oona Castilla Chaplin (“Game of Thrones”), daughter of Geraldine Chaplin and granddaughter of Charlie Chaplin, is curious and never really explained. No doubt, she is a welcome presence as she’s seen hanging out with Sauper and his friends. The most memorable scene is when she and Leonelis are improvising an intense mother/daughter scene that includes verbal and physical confrontation that will seem concerning in its realism. That intensity is balanced with a scene where Chaplin playfully sings a song while playing the ukelele and one in which she watches a quick snipper from her grandfather’s “The Great Dictator”.

“Epicentro” offers a striking look at a specific time in Cuba’s history and how it relates and was impacted by other significant moments of the past. As the film opens, the narrator can be heard commenting how the invention of motion pictures (complete with clips of Georges Méliès’ “A Trip to the Moon”) was occurring around the same time of Cuba’s liberation from Spain and its interference by American imperialism. Of special note is how the controversial sinking of the naval ship U.S.S. Maine in Havana Harbor in February of 1898 was filmed and reported. The event was considered to be a catalyst of the Spanish-American war a few months later, but what caused it to sink and the validity of the footage was met with much scrutiny, with American newspapers claiming that Spain was responsible for the ship’s destruction. The film’s posits that just as the invention of motion pictures could make it look like man had landed on the moon, a camera could also make a model battleship getting lit by fireworks in a tank look like a life-size explosion. It’s a reminder of how most of us have witnessed war “through the hypnotizing prism of cinema”, as the philosophizing narrator states.




In covering the past, but mostly the present, “Epicentro” can be seen as a cinematic essay that becomes something quite timely. We hear the subjects of Christopher Columbus’ first landing on the island and the dawning of colonialism soon after, as well as how American Presidents such as Roosevelt and Trump are viewed by Cubans living today. It’s easy to see how neither of these figures are viewed in a favorable light, but then irony could also be found as much of the reputations of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, the founding fathers of the country, remain predominately intact despite their own propagandistic lens. Regardless, what is evident throughout is a sense of pride amongst Cubans, even if they live in one of the last communist countries in the world.

The word “utopia” and “utopian” is used throughout the film, as Sauper asks different Cubans what they consider the definition of these words to be. Is it an ideal place to live, free of wants or needs? Is it an attainable paradise that provides everything one can hope for? It all depends on who you ask. I would wager that no one would say where they live is a utopia.

There will inevitably be viewers out there like myself, who only knew of Cuba from how the country has been represented by the media (whether it be about historical snippets or present-day occurrences) or in the movies, then “Epicentro” will definitely provide some education. Most importantly, there are examples included that indicate how what has transpired in the past has been misconstrued or wrongly depicted over the years.

At a time in life where we’re largely restricted to staying at home due to a pandemic, being transported to a country with such a rich and fascinating history and vibrant present is something to be treasured.






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