'Alumbrones,' about Cuban artists, fails to see big picture

Bruce Donnelly looks at artists in Cuba in the documentary 'Alumbrones'

Driven by a lifelong interest in Cuba, Bruce Donnelly embarked on a filmmaking project there, visiting a dozen of the island nation's artists. The resulting documentary, "Alumbrones," captures them at work and in conversation, and it proves a meandering, if pleasant, excursion. Arriving as the United States and Cuba begin to repair severed ties, the upbeat yet unsatisfying film can, if nothing else, be taken as a gesture of cultural diplomacy.

The painters, printmakers and ceramists are engaging, their work strong. But as interviewer and director, Donnelly approaches his subjects with an uncertain sense of purpose. As the movie drifts from generalities about technique to vibrant scenery — evocatively photographed by Esteban Malpica — to the occasional, much-needed anecdote, the vagueness of his enterprise becomes increasingly apparent.

Frustratingly, none of the artists is directly identified until the closing credits. Neither is their renown or success explored, although one, Pedro Pablo Oliva, is clearly a major figure and would be a compelling subject by himself.

Translated as "Illuminations," the title refers to the bursts of light during the lengthy blackouts that affected the country during the Special Period — the Orwellian name for the economic crisis that followed the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Addressing the years of deprivation, when food and electricity were scarce, the interviews grow more personal and memorable.

Oliva commemorated the period in his 1995 "Gran Apagón," a monumental painting that's considered the "Cuban 'Guernica.'" The film offers glimpses of it, along with intimate looks at the artists working. These canvas close-ups lend "Alumbrones" a spirited, kinetic energy. But as with the film as a whole, what's lacking are the necessary steps back to take in the full picture.



MPAA rating: None. In Spanish with English subtitles.

Running time: 1 hours, 15 minutes.

Playing: Arena Cinema, Hollywood. Also on VOD.

Copyright © 2018, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World