Chico and Rita, the Spanish-language film that earned a surprise Oscar nomination this morning in the animated feature category, may have snuck under the predictions radar, but it has so many voter-pleasing features it might as well have been built in an awards-seeking lab.
It’s a super-romantic love story. The title characters are two Cuban musicians who fall in love as young artists in pre-revolution Havana. Man, do they have chemistry—this is the sexiest animated movie I’ve ever seen. Cruel twists of fate, jealous suitors, and international politics interrupt their love affair but can’t kill the romance.
It taps into the universal affection for old Cuban musicians. Chico spends the first five decades or so of the post-revolution era shining shoes, but he enjoys a second career after Spanish musician Estrella Morente tracks him down and turns him into an international star. There are obvious echoes of the Buena Vista Social Club, but the clearest reference is to Cuban pianist Bebo Valdés, who spent nearly half a century in exile in Sweden before he came back into international prominence in the last decade. Valdés wrote the score for Chico and Rita and played Chico’s piano parts.
The music is amazing. When I saw the movie at the 2010 Spanish Cinema Now festival, jazz critic Gary Giddins gave a pre-screening rave about its contribution to our understanding of Cuban jazz and its influence on the American scene. Bebo Valdés wrote several new pieces for the score, and it also features the music of Dizzy Gillespie, Woody Herman, Charlie Parker, Tito Puente, Thelonious Monk, and others.
The images are gorgeous. Designer and comics artist Javier Mariscal created lush, shadow-filled landscapes and characters that are “cartoony” and distinct while still looking human and relatable (this film is no trip to the “uncanny valley”). The muted color palette works particularly well for the nighttime scenes in clubs and concert halls. The scenes of pre-revolution Cuba are astonishingly authentic thanks to a trove of old photographs the movie’s creators discovered in Havana.
It has a social conscience and criticizes both Cuba and the United States. Rita becomes a singing sensation in America, but her career suffers when she criticizes the way black musicians are treated. The movie also addresses the problems Cuban musicians faced when they came to the States and shows the murder of Cuban percussionist Chano Pozo, probably in a dispute over drugs. Back in Cuba, the movie doesn’t shy away from pre-revolution discrimination or post-revolution deprivation and political hypocrisy.
It has an excellent Oscar pedigree. Co-director Fernando Trueba won the Academy Award for best foreign-language film in 1994 for Belle Époque.
In other words, call your bookie. This is an outsider that could win.