Grade: B/B-
Not rated (would be PG)

Good art of any kind expands your world or your mind—often both. And films that show us a way of life, a way of perceiving life in another region or country can be more than fascinating. They can be instructional on a subliminal level. If you’re the kind of person who drives through a small town and looks in the windows of houses and shops wondering what it would be like to live there, the fictional Mambo Man is your kind of movie. And if you loved Buena Vista Social Club because it was awash with Cuban music, well, Mambo Man is your kind of movie too.

This 2020 Cuban film is full of fantastic images of life as it’s lived in in mostly rural Cuba, and the wonderful cinematography by Luis Alberto and Gonzalez Garcia is further enhanced by near-constant non-diegetic Cuban music that, along with several performances written into the screenplay, really capture the essence of life on this Caribbean island just 105 miles from Key West.

Edesio Alejandro and Mo Fini co-directed this film, which was shot mostly in the southeastern cities of Bayamo and Santiago de Cuba. Fini is the founding director of Tumi Music, which has produced more than 300 Latin CDs and videos, so it’s no wonder that music plays as much of a role in Mambo Man as the scenery and cinematography. Some scenes include live music performed by such legendary Cuban musicians as Candido Fabre, Maria Ochoa, Alma Latina, David Alvarez, and Arturo Jorge. The soundtrack features members of the Buena Vista Social Club—among them Grammy winner Eliades Ochoa, Juan de Marcos Gonzalez of the Afro-Cuban All Stars, Omara Portuondo, and many others that fill the screen with a rich tapestry of songs.

I absolutely loved the cinematography, soundtrack, and featured performances, and I’m not alone. Mambo Man won Best Cinematography at the Anatolia International Film Festival and Best Score at the Beloit International Film Festival, with other wins coming from the Ciudad de Mexico International Film Festival, Crown Wood International Film Festival, Festigious International Film Festival, Florence Film Awards, Hollywood Gold Awards, Marina Del Rey Film Festival, Montreal Independent Film Festival, New York Cinematography Awards, Open World Toronto Film Festival, Panamanian International Film Festival, Rome International and Rome Prisma Independent Film Awards, Scorpiusfest, South Film and Arts Academy Festival, IndieFest Film Awards, Next Level International Film Festival, Thinking Hat Fiction Challenge, and World Premiere Film Awards.

Although the film is in Spanish with English subtitles, I highly recommend it for family viewing because of the music and cinematography. The plot, dialogue, and acting are considerably less accomplished. Loosely based on a true story, Mambo Man follows dream-big entrepreneur JC (Héctor Noas), who works hard enough to buy two farms, but then has various disasters cancel out any success he envisioned. He likes to think of himself as an important man, and has “associates” to help him. A musician himself with all sorts of contacts, he promotes concerts and tries to find rich European investors to back his musical enterprises, wooing them with performances and a feast that includes a whole roasted pig. But like any get-rich-quick schemer, he is ripe for a fall, or at least a stumble. When he finds himself going up against another get-rich-quick schemer, his latest gambit is threatened. It sounds dramatic enough, but the plot and acting and dialogue really can’t compete with the music and the visuals.

There are a number of children in this realist film—one that uses many non-actors—and young family members no doubt will be fascinated to see how Cuban children play and pass the time, whether it’s Hopscotch, slingshots, or “fruit toss” trying to knock down more fruit out of trees. Set in 2017, the film shows the ways that Cubans get by with a little and still enjoy life and each other—though the U.S. Embargo has obviously hurt their economy. There’s mention of Cubans going to Miami, as well as scenes showing mechanics working on engines and old American cars to keep them going.

A number of films have been set in Cuba, but this one really stands out because it depicts not Havana but a vibrant smaller city and rural life on the island. There’s life here pulsing underneath and on the surface of an otherwise pedestrian story.

Directors Alejandro and Fini couldn’t have created a more alluring travel film if that had been their goal. Mambo Man manages to “sell” viewers on Cuba without whitewashing or withholding information. What we see is an unvarnished, un-romanticized view of the country that’s closest to the U.S. without bordering it—a country we should get to know better.

Entire family: No (Age 8 and up—younger ones may be distracted by subtitles)
Run time: 82 min.
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: Digital Stereo (Spanish w/English subtitles)
Studio/Distributor: Corinth Films
Bonus features: n/a
Amazon link
Not rated (would be PG for social drinking and smoking)

Language: 1/0—Nothing stood out, but there might have been a lesser swearword or two

Sex: 1/10—It’s not that kind of movie—a husband even kisses his wife on her forehead rather than the mouth—but there is a sequence involving Viagara jokes

Violence: 0/10—Nothing here

Adult situations: 2/10—No drunkenness, just the kind of celebrations that children can be a part of, with some social drinking and some smoking

Takeaway: It’s not often that we see a Cuban film, and that rarity factor adds to the novelty of what is already a unique movie about music and life in southeastern Cuba