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'Mateo' a moving documentary on unlikely mariachi singer

If you were to picture a film about a mariachi singer who travels to Cuba to record his dream project and subsequently becomes a sensation in Japan, the ginger-haired, bespectacled, New Hampshire-bred Matthew Stoneman would not immediately spring to mind.

That is precisely what makes "Mateo," the documentary about the nerdy guy with the sweetly ethereal, choirboy voice, so instantly intriguing.

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Stoneman, who learned to speak and sing in Spanish while serving five years in prison for armed robbery, has spent most of his time and all of his money traveling between L.A. restaurant gigs and Havana to record a Buena Vista Social Club-type album.

Although it might initially seem like folly, Matthew-Mateo proves to be a man of evident musical talent — he sounds like a bolero Chet Baker — and, seven years later, "Una Historia de Cuba" is finally finished.

Director Aaron I. Naar alternates between those recording sessions (a process that might not have taken so long were it not for Mateo's preoccupation with Cuban hookers) and insightful comments from his friends and estranged parents in New Hampshire.

What begins as a quirky portrait of the artist as a gringo mariachi troubadour proves to be a telling study of a lost soul whose palpable passion for his music acts as a surrogate for more meaningful human contact.

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"Mateo."

No MPAA rating.

Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.

Playing: Arena Cinema, Hollywood.

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