Shadow of the House

"Very Good"

Shadow of the House Review


With a slice of humor and a bit of melancholy, photographer Abelardo Morell gives himself the title "The Last Cuban." Having left his native island at the age of 14, Morell became the ultimate assimilation story: He taught himself English, attended school, shot pictures on the streets, and then raised the typical American family. As far as lineage goes, he's right: He is the last Cuban. Morell's story, and his life as an artist, is the focus of a documentary by Allie Humenuk, an astute filmmaker with a refreshingly light touch.

Humenuk's style fits her subject matter. Although Morell shows signs of being a perfectionist with a stubborn streak, he never comes off as the typical hotheaded artiste. His mood -- on camera and in his work -- is pleasantly easygoing. Whether he's requesting the perfect Paris hotel room to shoot one of his famed camera obscura shots or he's frustrated by the quality of an experimental piece, Morell stays even-tempered. Even cool.

Similarly, director Humenuk never lets her film get carried away with clichéd emotion -- and there's plenty of opportunity to do so. After we learn of Morell's background and fascinating creative process, he reveals plans to return to Cuba for 10 days of work. While there, he spends time with an uncle he hasn't seen in decades, visits his childhood house with his wife and tracks down a scrapbook's worth of old photographs.

Yet, there are few tears, no pushy shots, and no annoyingly earnest voiceovers. In many documentaries, that kind of emotional extraction can be an attempt to make life seem as dramatic as manufactured narrative (often unintentionally). In Shadow of the House, Humenuk knows just what to shoot and include, mastering an overall rhythm without adding unnecessary icing to the cake.

Morell and his photographs are still the biggest reasons to see this movie. Both man and message are quiet and captivating, as if Morell were the living version of his brilliantly composed black-and-white photos. With a slow pace and even voice, Morell expresses awareness of his accomplishments, but takes personal pride in simply being a driven, hard-working guy. The whole vibe produces a peaceful calm that makes the film a small gem, elevated by Ruth Mendelson's warm, delicate score.

What's missing is a dose of connectivity. It's easy to describe Shadow of the House as the story of a Cuban-American photographer who returns to Cuba, but it's not necessarily told that way. Yes, Morell returns to Cuba, and there's no denying the impact that may have on his life. But Humenuk's earlier introduction is to that of a photographer, not necessarily a Cuban photographer. Later, when Morell's citizenship is brought into the picture, it seems like a convenient tie-in to align with his statements about origin and nation. It's not forced, but it doesn't have the comfortable balance it should.

However, anyone the slightest bit interested in the art of photography should seek this one out. As mentioned earlier, Morell specializes in camera obscura, in which the artist darkens a room and lets outside light pour into a pinhole, projecting the outdoor world onto walls and furniture -- reversed and upside down. Quietly appropriate imagery in a film whose strength is its softness.

Dark shadows.



Facts and Figures

Run time: 74 mins

In Theaters: Saturday 28th April 2007

Reviews

Contactmusic.com: 3.5 / 5

IMDB: 7.1 / 10

Cast & Crew

Director: Allie Humenuk

Producer: Allie Humenuk

Contactmusic


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