Early in "Chico & Rita," under the shimmer of the Tropicana's spotlight, Rita rummages through the lower octaves of attraction. Smitten, Chico gapes from the bar, dragging on a cigarette. Humid with sound, the scene has the texture of live action, its every wrinkle and wink. A movie song hasn't conveyed desire quite like this in nearly forty years.
Such is the rich aural world of last year's Oscar-nominated animated film, calling up memories of Robert Altman's "Nashville" (1975), whose high-water mark is Keith Carradine's pained rendition of "I'm Easy," aimed at Lily Tomlin's heart from across the expanse of the bar. As in that country-music classic, the rhumbas and riffs of Fernado Trueba and Javier Mariscal's tale of two Cuban musicians in and out of love are not decorative but structural. Each twist in the plot comes with a change of key, from the neighborhood strains of Afro-Cubans and the big band jazz of Paris to New York's expatriate underground and Hollywood's studio backlots. Attuned to every wavelength of genre, lushly colored in the bright palette of promotional posters and theatre marquees, the film is a masterly aesthetic treat.
But as Chico (voiced by Lenny Mandel), a pianist and composer, and Rita (Limara Meneses), a nightclub performer-turned-star, are thrown together and torn apart by the Cold War politics of the mid-twentieth century, the thin narrative fails to keep pace with these dense sights and sounds. The protagonists' brief encounters never move beyond the realm of beautiful implication: Chico and Rita are emblems of an age long since lost rather than characters in their own right, never as full or rounded as the lines that draw them. "Chico & Rita" is not so much a story of thwarted love as a fantasy of it, hemmed in by Havana's gangster-run nightclubs and Rat Pack-era performances on the Vegas strip.
The treat, then, is an old-fashioned one, as though an embargoed product of the studio system; the "cameos" and allusions — Marilyn Monroe and Rita Moreno, Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk — do more to recall a former world than to fashion it anew. As though speaking for the filmmakers, Rita laments the passing of these half-remembered images. "The future never gave me anything," she says. "All my hopes are set on the past."