You’ve probably seen those films where a North American woman journeys to a foreign land to “find themselves.” In the process, they often find a spiritual awakening or even romance. In Kaveh Nabatian’s Sin La Habana, an Iranian-Canadian woman embarks on such a soul-searching adventure to Cuba, where she becomes smitten with the culture and a handsome young ballet dancer. As she gets entangled in a relationship with him, an unwitting love triangle develops that becomes even more complex as their fates alternately diverge and collide.
The story begins with Leonardo (Yonah Acosta Gonzalez), a ballet dancer with dreams of landing a coveted place in a ballet company as a ticket out of Cuba with his girlfriend Sara (Evelyn Castroda O’Farrill) in tow. When his plan falls through, the couple decide to try another route, whereby Leonardo seduces a tourist who will then take him away. Having started a salsa class, he finds the perfect target in a bright-eyed Iranian-Canadian named Nasim (Aki Yaghoubi). As he befriends her and guides her through Havana, their relationship blossoms. Soon Nasim makes plans for their future together in Canada, while Leonardo vows to later file documents to be reunited with Sara once he’s settled. But the hopes of each lover don’t turn out as anticipated, with various obstacles standing in the way of their happy endings.
While love triangles are always complicated, Nabatian subverts the potentially facile trope to make a fascinating statement on interracial relationships and the exploitative dynamics underpinning the tourism industry. Indeed, though the power dynamics between foreigners and service-providing locals are usually skewed towards the former, Leonardo and Sara’s scheme suggests that a reverse exploitation can be possible. As a result, the film is strikingly honest about the opportunistic nature of the relationship.
Though Leonardo and Nasim’s affair lacks true romance, it’s clear that Nabatian is in love with Cuba. Indeed, while Leonardo and Sara can’t wait to leave, Nabatian invites us to stay by vibrantly showcasing the country’s architecture, music, dance and specific aspects of Afro-Cuban culture. The film truly puts Havana in a favorable light with the aid of an enthralling soundtrack and gorgeous cinematography.
As the narrative shifts focus to the colder Canadian environment and the particular issues surrounding race, the film admittedly loses some of its luster. In particular, it suffers from a decision to relegate Sara to Nabatian’s more abstract directorial flourishes. Still, Sin La Habana remains a nuanced portrait of love and longing for people, places and the chance to achieve one’s ambitions.