Early in "Chico & Rita," under the shimmer of the Tropicana's spotlight, Rita rummages through the lower octaves of attraction. Smitten, Chico gapes from the bar, dragging on a cigarette. Humid with sound, the scene has the texture of live action, its every wrinkle and wink. A movie song hasn't conveyed desire quite like this in nearly forty years.
Such is the rich aural world of last year's Oscar-nominated animated film, calling up memories of Robert Altman's "Nashville" (1975), whose high-water mark is Keith Carradine's pained rendition of "I'm Easy," aimed at Lily Tomlin's heart from across the expanse of the bar. As in that country-music classic, the rhumbas and riffs of Fernado Trueba and Javier Mariscal's tale of two Cuban musicians in and out of love are not decorative but structural. Each twist in the plot comes with a change of key, from the neighborhood strains of Afro-Cubans and the big band jazz of Paris to New York's expatriate underground and Hollywood's studio backlots. Attuned to every wavelength of genre, lushly colored in the bright palette of promotional posters and theatre marquees, the film is a masterly aesthetic treat.
But as Chico (voiced by Lenny Mandel), a pianist and composer, and Rita (Limara Meneses), a nightclub performer-turned-star, are thrown together and torn apart by the Cold War politics of the mid-twentieth century, the thin narrative fails to keep pace with these dense sights and sounds. The protagonists' brief encounters never move beyond the realm of beautiful implication: Chico and Rita are emblems of an age long since lost rather than characters in their own right, never as full or rounded as the lines that draw them. "Chico & Rita" is not so much a story of thwarted love as a fantasy of it, hemmed in by Havana's gangster-run nightclubs and Rat Pack-era performances on the Vegas strip.
The treat, then, is an old-fashioned one, as though an embargoed product of the studio system; the "cameos" and allusions — Marilyn Monroe and Rita Moreno, Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk — do more to recall a former world than to fashion it anew. As though speaking for the filmmakers, Rita laments the passing of these half-remembered images. "The future never gave me anything," she says. "All my hopes are set on the past."
"Nobody Walks" forsakes the far country of the past for an eminently recognizable present, a wealthy, dreamy, dusky Los Angeles of Italian instructors and hill houses and classic cars, of swimming pools and sweeping views of the pulsing alien communication that the city becomes at night. It, too, is immersed in sound, from the clatter of snapping fingers to a thirsty squeeze of lemon. The noise of human connection, and disconnection, too: the film's most audacious moment cuts between a full house and a soundproof room, as though silence were an indiscretion.
Julie (Rosemarie DeWitt) and Peter (John Krasinski) are hosting Martine (Olivia Thirlby), a New York artist, as Peter, a Hollywood sound editor, helps her put together a video installation for an upcoming gallery opening. Directed by Ry Russo-Young, from a script he co-wrote with "Girls" polymath Lena Dunham, "Nobody Walks" is in some respects as slim as "Chico & Rita" — Thirlby remains a cipher, drifting in and our of lust, while appearances by Dylan McDermott and Justin Kirk never amount to much. Yet I was enamored of it, of the space it opens up between wanting to have sex and wanting to swear it off, of the way it hides the subtle slights and deprecations of relationships within its wall of sound.
Perhaps this feeling has something to do with DeWitt, an actress who evinces a preternatural ability to take the thankless role (Village radical, sober sister, stable wife) and find in it the core of the story. With Krasinski, she forms the nucleus of a family tossed about by its complications and loose ends, then arrives at her moment of suspicion head-on — "Just don't embarrass me," she says — lending it a refreshing frankness.
If things fall apart as expected, it may be that we imitate the natural world that Martine portrays in her art, running back the script and thinking each time that we'll get a different ending. "Nobody Walks" is such a lovely film because it admits that the noisy relationships we forge can only hint at the feelings we can't express aloud. "Heartache," Martine says. "What would that sound like?" It turns out we can only guess.
"Chico & Rita" is available today on Blu-ray and DVD. "Nobody Walks" is currently available on VOD, and arrives in theaters October 12.