Life is Whistling (1998) poster

Life is Whistling (1998)


aka Life is to Whistle
(La Vida es Silbar)

Cuba. 1998.


Director – Fernando Perez, Screenplay – Fernando Perez, Eduardo De Llano & Humberto Jimenez, Producer – Rafael Rey, Photography – Raul Perez Ureta, Music – Edesio Alejandro, Special Effects – Gilberto Martinez, Art Direction – Raul Oliva. Production Company – ICAIC/Wanda Distributon.


Luis Alberto Garcia (Elpidio), Claudia Rojas (Mariana de la Trinidad), Coralia Veloz (Julia), Bebe Perez (Bebe/St Barbara), Isabel Santos (Chrissy), Joan Manuel Reyes (Ismael Cuenfuegos), Rolando Brito (Dr Fernando)


St Barbara sits back observing and weaving the fates of three people she cares about in Havana, all of whom are orphans. Elpidio, a musician who woos tourists while praying to one day meet the mother he has never known, finds himself becoming involved more than he cares with Chrissy, an American ecologist, whose wallet he steals and then pretends to return. Mariana, a hyper-sexed ballerina, promises God that she will never sleep with another man if he gets her the lead in an upcoming production of ‘Giselle’. However, when she gets the part, she finds herself torn between her oath and the incredibly handsome male lead Ismael. Julia, an attendant at a geriatric hospital, is prone to spells of yawning and fainting whenever she hears the word ‘sex’. She then meets a doctor who explains that people faint when they hear words that bring up memories they have tried to bury.

Life is Whistling is a venture into the Latino tradition of Magical Realism, which in this case comes from Cuba. Life is Whistling won the Special Jury Award at the 1999 Sundance Festival. The film is a magical delight. Indeed, of the handful of Magical Realist films to breakthrough to Western countries in the last decade – Like Water for Chocolate (1992), Celestial Clockwork (1995) – or Western attempts to copy such – The Milagro Beanfield War (1988), The Butcher’s Wife (1991), The House of the Spirits (1993), Rough Magic (1995) and Simply Irresistible (1999) – it is one of the most unabashedly enjoyable.

Director Fernando Perez has enormous visual flair – particularly delightful are the scenes with people keeling over en masse as psychologist Rolando Brito runs through the streets unwittingly mentioning repressed words. The love scenes have an immense sensuality – there is a wonderful radiance and a wholly natural and unforced sunniness to the film’s various love stories.

Claudia Rojas and Joan Manuel Reyes in Life is Whistling (1998)
Ballerina Claudia Rojas and her lover Joan Manuel Reyes

The interweave of the story and the various fabulist plot devices – the mysterious taxi driver, the narrator that addresses the camera and tells us about the characters, the web of fates that is drawing everybody together at 4:44 pm on December 4th – are enchanting. And the rundown buildings of Havana are shot with a ravishing beauty. If you consider that filmmaking was a suppressed medium in Cuba until only the last decade, it is something that makes the degree of artistic confidence displayed by Fernando Perez even more remarkable.

The only place the film falls down is the abrupt ending. Here the story contrives to bring the various plotlines together on the aforementioned date in Revolution Square – only instead of allowing the three unrequited love stories to reach an emotional conclusion, the film has all three characters suddenly start whistling and then cuts away to the year 2020 where everybody in Cuba has learned the secret to happy living is whistling. It makes for a cute epilogue but its effect on the story is akin to a car unexpectedly slamming on its brakes suddenly at 100 mph. This is the only aspect that mars an otherwise delightful whimsy.

Fernando Perez later returned to genre material with the surreal Madrigal (2006).

Trailer here

Themes: , , , ,