Cuban music, romance animate “Chico & Rita”


“Chico & Rita,” playing Sunday, March 25, at the Katharine Cornell Theatre, recreates the music-rich world of Havana, Cuba, in 1948. Nominated for this year’s Best Animated Film Oscar, this beautifully made Spanish movie is part of the Martha’s Vineyard Film Society’s (MVFS) winter series.

“Rango” may have won the coveted statue this year, but “Chico & Rita” deserved it equally. The movie makes for a haunting combination of music, animation, and storytelling.

“Chico & Rita” opens with a modern-day rendition of Havana. An elderly Chico, now reduced to shining shoes, comes home to his humble quarters, turns on the radio and reminisces about his younger days performing with the love of his life, Rita.

In a flashback, Chico returns to his salad days. As a talented and ambitious piano player, Chico spots Rita singing in a Havana nightclub. He’s mesmerized and persuades her to join his band.

Continuing the use of flashbacks, the story traces a conventional trajectory of the ups, downs, and excesses involved in romantic passion. What makes “Chico & Rita” exceptional is its use of animation and music by creators Fernando Trueba, Javier Mariscal, Tono Errando and animation director Manolo Galiana.

Cuba in the late 1940s and 1950s was the scene of world-class jazz and the earliest forms of Afro-Cuban music popularized by Dizzy Gillespie and others. The fictional Chico and Rita mix with the likes of Gillespie, Thelonius Monk, Woody Herman, and conga player Chono Poza, who befriends the two when they move to New York.

The film incorporates vintage music and new work by Cuban pianist Bebo Valdés in a nostalgic mix of past and present. According to New York Times reviewer A. O. Scott, the 93-year-old Mr. Valdés provided the model for Chico.

The directors balance scenes of present-day Havana with those of its past glory. In contrasting large, flat planes of color, the animators imbue the characters and scenery with depth through movement and the use of shadows. The figures of Chico, his manager Ramón and Rita express a sinuous sensuality. The bulging vintage cars Havana is still known for race through its streets. Animation aestheticizes the movie’s explicit sex scenes.

Streets, buildings, and details like a lace curtain blowing gently in the wind or an homage to the RCA dog logo are drawn with a meticulousness that pushes this film towards the extraordinary. Combined with music like Chico’s composition “Lily,” these visuals make “Chico & Rita” a deeply satisfying cinematic experience and one not to be missed.

“Chico & Rita,” Sunday, March 25, 7:30 pm, Katharine Cornell Theatre, Vineyard Haven. $8; $5 for MVFS members. Doors open at 7 pm. For more information, see