A man is haunted by a woman, and a melody. He is a writer, and she is the ballerina he fell in love with 40 years ago after he saw her dance to a particular tune that, nearly half a century later, is wafting back into his mind by way of a dream.
In writer/director Ben Chace’s arresting “Sin Alas,” we find the aging author Luis Vargas (Carlos Padrón) in Havana, Cuba, opening his newspaper to learn that the ballerina haunting his brain, Isabela Munoz (Yulisleyvís Rodrigues), has died. The news startles him into revisiting his buried past, and the bourgeois life he shed to pursue political revolution as a young man.
Part mystery, part ghost tale, this seductive film draws inspiration less from film than from postmodern literature, specifically from the freely flowing writings of Jorge Luis Borges, the Argentine midcentury author of slippery tales including the stories in “Ficciones” and “Labyrinths.” “Sin Alas” does similarly dazzling strokes in a novella-sized 80 minutes, shot in earthy, sensual, sweaty 16mm by indie “it” cinematographer Sean Price Williams, (who has shot the films of Alex Ross Perry, and the Safdies’ “Heaven Knows What”).
The film also borrows from the avant-garde poetry of influential Cuban writer José Lezama Lima, whose ruminations on Narcissus lend a mythic overtone through voiceover as the elder Luis, after learning Isabela has died, ambles through the boulevards of Cuba’s bustling central metropolis chasing the source of an elusive melody that relates to his memories of Isabela. We’re fed threads of his past, of the younger, handsome, mustachioed journalist Luis (Lieter Ledesma Alberto) whose astute observations of art and dance, on a rainy night, bewitched Isabela into kissing and luring him back to her room — and away from her less artistically sensitive, politically powerful husband.
Inundated by memories of the past, Luis also finds parallels of his own identity in the struggling couple next door, a young man and woman who are separating and live in a tenement apartment as claustrophobic as that of Stella and Stanley Kowalski in “A Streetcar Named Desire.”
“Sin Alas” may also remind you of another Argentine, Julio Cortázar, who also wrote about intellectuals and revolutions and women who went missing.
It is not easy for us to parse the drama of the affair that happened decades ago between young Luis and Isabela, whose short courtship is shown in fleeting, sometimes imperceptibly enmeshed flashbacks (edited, also, by Chace): Isabela sheathed in a bedsheet falling down a spiral staircase, Luis engaged in their rhapsodic lovemaking before scurrying out of her apartment — and a frightening, almost violently shot sex scene that makes us feel like creepy voyeurs.
Cinematographer Williams smashes faces closely into focus, preferring more static composition in the flashbacks to the more leisurely, handheld approach of the present, where elder Luis wanders around looking for answers. The film’s vérité visual style invites us to drink in the city and its colorful inhabitants, jazz-infused music, rickshaws, open air markets and winding corridors and alleyways. At one point, Isabela’s spirt seems to possess a woman playing street music, channeling missives from the grave as Luis watches, uncertain.
“Sin Alas,” which translates to mean “without wings,” offers plenty of political fodder to chew on — but only implicitly. Which is refreshing. The film does not romanticize — or condemn — the insurgency in Cuba in the 1960s. What the film does offer is a portrait of a country whose darkness still glints off the edges. Luis’ troubling past might as well be that of Cuba’s: ambiguous, conflicting and still very much not through with the present. This is a beautiful film, and head-swimmingly oblique, but it may require further viewings and readings to fully unpack.