Film Review: Havana Motor Club

A Cuban drag-racing doc that’s heavy on classic-car beauty and light on depth.
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Cuba’s car-racing obsession gets a depressingly superficial portrait courtesy of Havana Motor Club, director Bent-Jorgen Perlmutt’s documentary about the efforts of a number of Havana drivers endeavoring to turn their pastime into a legitimate sport. The reason for their struggle is that, since the 1959 socialist revolution spearheaded by Fidel Castro, car racing has been illegal, forcing these need-for-speed athletes to take to the streets in drag races that—if discovered by the police—carry with them the threat of both imprisonment and, worse still, the confiscation of their vehicles.

Those hot rods are largely 1950s-era American classics (Chevys, Fords, Plymouths) that have been tricked out by their owners with similar 50-year-old parts—a situation created by Cuba’s socialism-fostered sociopolitical isolation. In its depiction of these men customizing their big rides with all manner of spare parts—including, in the case of a jobless man named Jote, an enormous boat engine—Havana Motor Club captures a sense of the restrictive atmosphere of a country cut off from the rest of the world for the better part of a half-century, as well as the industriousness and inventiveness those circumstances have begat in some of its citizens.

Jote’s desperate desire to immigrate to the United States underlines the fact that Perlmutt’s subjects are less than happy with such limitations on their lives and automotive passion. However, Havana Motor Club only skims the surface in detailing the historical context of its story. Worse still, after an introduction that taps into the innovative-workmanlike atmosphere of this racing subculture, the film assumes a tiresomely skin-deep format in which cursory snapshots of various people precede an eventual narrative build-up to a climactic competitive showdown. In this instance, that final face-off is the first authorized race allowed in Cuba in decades—delayed because of a 2012 visit from the Pope, and ultimately permitted thanks to Raul Castro reforms. Without any real idea about who these men are outside their fiery attitudes and dedication to toiling away on their vehicles, the proceedings prove devoid of compelling dramatic import.

Consequently, the relationship between father and son Reinaldo “Tito” López Fernández and Reynaldo López Garcia is left almost wholly uninvestigated, as is the means by which Carlos Alvarez Sánchez—whose fearsome Porsche has been assembled from brand-new parts acquired from overseas—has managed to earn enough money to build his cars, or how he’s developed his relationship with his importer. Havana Motor Club isn’t lacking for interesting personalities, which is why its disinterest in conveying something substantial about them is so frustrating. Perlmutt is so taken with their rides, and with presenting a chronological narrative that culminates in a head-to-head confrontation, that he forgets to give viewers a motivation to care about those things in the first place. The result is yet another example of the misbegotten legacy of Spellbound—the pioneer of this slight nonfiction template—and, also, a case study in squandering potentially rich material through a misguided focus on thrills over depth.

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