Hotel Nueva Isla (2014) is not an easy movie to watch, though that may be the point. With very little dialogue, the film follows Jorge as he fruitlessly attempts to restore a dilapidated hotel. Even after his co-inhabitants leave out of concerns over their personal safety, Jorge and his dog stay behind to continue the renovation.
This independent film becomes more interesting when placed within the context of Cuban cinema. Cuba’s inhabited ruins have offered an inviting backdrop for a number of filmmakers. «Hotel Nueva Isla» is in clear dialogue with the ICAIC-backed Suite Habana (2003), and the German-produced Arte nueva de hacer ruinas (2006). The question is, what does this new take add to the conversation?
Irene Guitierrez and Javier Labrador’s film is a much darker look at Cuba’s ruins. Unlike most Cuban films, almost all of the scenes are shot inside, forgoing the usual sunrises and palm trees that decorate even the most overtly political works. This adds a unique sense of claustrophobia, of not being able to escape, despite the fact that many of the building’s walls are barely standing.
While other ruin-centered Cuban movies have had similarly striking visuals, this one stands out for allowing the audience to hear the ruins as well. The sounds of crumbling, hammering, or the rain eroding away the stone are just as prevalent as the images, and even take precedence over the few conversations between the building’s inhabitants. Both the sound and the photography also represent an enormous advancement in the technology available to Cuban independent filmmakers.
For those not invested in the history of Cuban cinema, there are times when this movie may seem to drag. The intimate moments between Jorge and his lover, La Flaca, and the scenes in which Jorge attempts to teach La Flaca’s daughter the alphabet are certainly engaging for any audience member. Those moments, however, are sprinkled throughout the film, broken up by Jorge’s never-ending battle with the building and the dream that confine him.
Hotel Nueva Isla is the latest version of Cuban filmmakers struggling with the issue of Cuban ruins. While other films focus on survival, this one looks at how hope for the future can both motivate and imprison those that attempt to restore these ruins to an idealized former glory. This is a definite must-see for anyone interested in the technical aspects of photography and sound in film, as well as a worthwhile watch for those that want to see a new take on the unpredictability of Cuba’s future.