Review

'Havana Motor Club' richly profiles Cuba's covert racing scene

Their cars are old, and the parts are either used, bought illegally or homemade. But the dreams of Cuba's auto racers burn as brightly as they have since the Revolution — which considered racing elitist and dangerous — effectively drove them underground.

Bent-Jorgen Perlmutt's documentary "Havana Motor Club" draws you into this entrenched, friendly car subculture, and shows how the promise of reforms that began in 2012 with a thaw in U.S.-Cuban relations have given scrappy enthusiasts hope that their passion will be legalized, then legitimized with the first official auto race in their homeland since 1959. Can a back-burner simmer become a successfully rolling boil?

The shared love of the movie's featured racers for their long-rebellious sport makes for a unifying energy, but their individual experiences — and different attitudes toward the future — provide an underlying complexity. A veteran like "Tito" Lopez, who runs a revered workshop with his son Rey, stays hypercompetitive about becoming a national sports hero by racing his popular 1955 Chevy — Cuba's most famous car — against his rival Carlos Alvarez, whose V-8-outfitted 1980s Porsche was smuggled in from the U.S. by his wealthy Cuban American patron.

Another racer, "Piti" Munnet, who fought off cancer and races a black '56 Ford Victoria, wonders if lifting the embargo on cars and parts will favor racers with money, while cash-strapped racing hobbyist Jote Mais is willing to sell his '51 Ford piece by piece to finance repeated efforts to get out of the country.

The backdrop is expectedly rich, considering the throwback visuals of Cuba's frozen-in-time midcentury landscape, and a spotlight trained on beautifully tended vintage cars. Perlmutt also finds plenty of dramatic suspense in the various hitches — logistical, political, even neurotic — that put in doubt an official championship race coming together. With President Obama's historic visit to Cuba a fresh memory, "Havana Motor Club" gives moviegoers a nicely turned street-level view of what imminent change means to these particular children of the Revolution.

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'Havana Motor Club'

Running time: 1 hour, 24 minutes

Not rated

Playing: Arena Cinema Hollywood

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Copyright © 2017, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on April 08, 2016, in the Entertainment section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Racing scene is revving up - As vestiges of old Cuba drop away, a covert car culture gains traction. - `HAVANA MOTOR CLUB'" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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