The prologue to The Project of the Century feels like three different movies have been made on the same subject and then spliced together. A green-lettered computer readout informs us that we are about to bear witness to the Electro-Nuclear City (CEN), a futuristic-sounding place that is actually the relic of a fuel-alternative enterprise launched and then abandoned by Cuba in the 1980s. A 4:3 window within the frame plays archival news-helicopter shots of the Juragua Nuclear Power Plant, with cranes and industrial buildings as empty as they were left following the collapse of the Soviet Union. This gives way to widescreen narrative as fumigators spray a modern-day residential block free of deadly insects; ironic, given how lifeless the place looks anyway through Marcos Attila’s black-and-white cinematography. It’s understandable for Cuban experimental film-maker Carlos Quintela to go aesthetically hog-wild for his feature debut, and his attempts to meld the different modes hardly make for a cohesive whole, but this strange journey through the semiotics of national enterprise and derived character drama has enough sense of time and place to be at least compellingly jumbled.
Fittingly, Quintela starts his central narrative in a state of chaos, with Leo (Leonardo Gascón) and his father Rafael (Mario Guerra) trading blows in one the block units. Their quickness to anger is explained in dialogue, but with grandfather Otto (Mario Balmaseda) lording over them and their lack of self-control, it’s easy to intuit an intergenerational angst in them. Each of them have their creature comforts and want for female companionship, and they are as blind to that commonality as any believable family unit. Balmaseda and Guerra get the most interesting characters to live through, with backstory and idiosyncrasy, and though Leo does not get a similar dynamic, his moments of brooding recalcitrance are affecting and fitting for a place where the future is deeply uncertain for him and his progenitors. Quintela both avoids resolving their threads in conventional ways and attempts to climax them in a shamelessly bawdy fashion, and while it doesn’t sit well in the whole, it’s no less souring than any of the other disparate elements that can be found.
When they stop lunging at each other’s throats, they wander the world outside and fixate on fleeting pleasures, and under editor Yan Vega the news footage wafts in to remind us of the place of Cuban statehood in it all. The men themselves appear to be watching that same 1980s footage on their grainy cathode-ray TV sets, but it turns out to be the 2012 London Olympics, where Cuban boxer Robeisy Ramirez is taking out the gold. The antiquated technology alone shows their disconnect from their own country, which in itself was disconnected from Western superpowers until very recently, and Quintela initially is making a daring run in asking us to tie his sparse visuals and those allegorical leanings together. What a shame, then, that he chickens out and lays those themes completely bare in a dialogue-heavy scene between Otto and Leo immediately after; a single moment of concession in a piece that otherwise plays to its own beat.
He fares much better when he is using these supplements as transitions or interludes rather than shoehorned thematic material. A highlight takes place on a ferry, where Balmaseda asks us to gaze into the eyes of people whose lives have been affected by the Juragua shortfall, either by being stranded by their prospective employer or by picking through the ruins of the construction site left behind.1 One of them, a Russian soprano by the name of Natalia Nikolaevna Kan, performs an operatic version of the classic Cuban love-hate song, “Te Odio” to Attila’s slow-panning camera in an arresting sequence working on the same wavelength as Lynch’s “Llorando” turn in Mulholland Drive.2 Cut off as they are from the perspective of the rest of the film (both Balmaseda and Kan are practically addressing the audience directly), the images’ compelling cultural hybrid brings to mind another recent black-and-white first feature, Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. Similarly, this will make this at least a hell of a showreel for its director, not to mention film festival ident montages.
The film veers through all of these sections like a sputtering truck, not in the best working order or sure of its destination but with enough history and intrigue to be worth hitching with. There’s yet more points of focus beyond what is mentioned here – the ambiguous insertion of desired females, the perplexingly visitations of death, a dog owner who comes by the men’s apartment to take a shower – so a visitation to Quintela’s discourse on malformed nationalism is fitting fuel for a post-viewing debrief.