VIFF 2021 Review: Sin La Habana

Written by Anna Harrison


Director Kaveh Nabatian’s Sin La Habana has grand ambitions, much like its protagonist, Leo (Yaneh Acosta), a talented Afro-Cuban ballet dancer who dreams of leaving Cuba to find a better life elsewhere. Together with his girlfriend, Sara (Evelyn Castroda O’Farrill), Leo decides the best way to get out is to seduce someone, and the easiest target is Nasim (Aki Yaghoubi), a lonely Iranian-Canadian tourist who enrolls in Leo’s dance classes. Soon enough, Nasim extends an invitation to Leo to join her in Montreal, and Nabatian swaps the colorful and chaotic streets of Cuba for the snowy and stark landscape of Canada. The contrast could not be starker, and cinematographer Juan Pablo Ramírez beautifully frames the different cities, one warm, one cold.

As Leo settles into his new life, he struggles to avoid the pull he feels from Nasim, and Nasim struggles to avoid the judgement of her family. Leo struggles to find success as a dancer despite his talent, instead faced with cultural barriers and lack of opportunity for someone who looks like him; while the dance scenes are engaging, and Acosta’s background as a professional ballet dancer clearly shows, for a movie that seems to place so much emphasis upon dance it feels surprisingly hollow: how did Leo start dancing? What moves him to dance? Why is it so important to him that he keeps trying, no matter how many rejections he’s handed?

It’s issues like these that prevent Sin La Habana from grasping those aforementioned grand ambitions: it tries to juggle so many ideas that none of them are given enough weight. In a movie that tries to position itself as a profound meditation on race, gender, immigration, identity, and all the things that come with it, it largely skates over these issues, giving them only cursory but obvious glances which retread well-worn ground. In particular, there is one baffling scene where Nasim’s father calls Leo the n-word, and while the movie certainly attempts to explore the prejudices of racism and xenophobia, this slur comes out of nowhere and is dismissed with practically a wave of a hand. It occurs quickly and is ignored just as quickly, doing nothing to the story or the characters, only leaving a sour taste in the mouth as Nasim barely reacts to this offense and barely even acknowledges it. (It should be noted that technically the subtitles called Leo the n-word, as Nasim’s father is speaking in Hebrew, so perhaps the Hebrew equivalent doesn’t carry the same weight as the n-word does to any American viewers like myself, but why would the subtitles go for that exact word as opposed to something less blindsiding in a movie that, up to this point, had been more subtle in its observations?) 

These issues are compounded by a lack of chemistry from the lead actors, sapping the love triangle of any potency and instead rendering it a young adult cliché. When the three of them collide, what should be a taut, climactic moment becomes dull and uninteresting. Sin La Habana has all the promise in the world, but sadly squanders it in a scattershot film that never focuses long enough on anything to make it interesting.

Sin La Habana Trailer

Sin La Habana was screened as part of the 2021 edition of the Vancouver International Film Festival.

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