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'Four Seasons in Havana,' A Hidden Gem on Netflix, Well Worth the Time To Find
January 16, 2020  | By Alex Strachan  | 2 comments
 


Sometimes the best gems on Netflix are the ones you never hear about. Moments after I gave up on Messiah, Roma Downey and Mark Burnett's ghastly — and overhyped — what-if tale about what Jesus would do were he to reappear in the Middle East today, I found myself utterly entranced by a four-part mystery set in present-day Havana, Cuba that I only learned about by hunting and pecking through Netflix's vast trove of foreign-language TV series — the shows Netflix never tells you about.

Everyone's taste is different, of course, but that aside, I cannot stress just how compelling, hypnotic — and beautifully made — Four Seasons in Havana really is. Imagine, if you will, a present-day reimagining of Columbo with shades of Miami Vice, set against a crumbling, decaying yet alluring New World city trapped in time, where Havana's citizens navigate centuries-old streets in four-door 1956 Ford sedans and '58 Chevrolet Impalas, where the windshield decal could just as easily be an Apple logo as a fading, mildew stained decal of Che Guevara. (One of the many telling, meticulous details of Four Seasons in Havana is how posters, murals, and framed office photos of Che are so much more common, and revered, than those of Fidel.)

It's hard to dwell on Four Seasons in Havana's four mysteries (each feature-length episode runs about 90 minutes) without spoiling the surprise or giving too much away, but the broad strokes are compelling enough on their own to give one reason to watch — if you're looking for something slightly out-of-the-ordinary, that is, something that tells a complex, adult story, without being so complicated and self-absorbed that it's impossible to follow.

Four Seasons in Havana, or Cuatro estaciones en La Habana in its original Spanish, is best seen in its Spanish with English subtitles. Made in 2016, it's a Spain-Cuba co-production, which tells you a lot about Netflix's international ambitions right there, but Netflix also makes it easy to watch dubbed in English, if that's what you prefer and you don't want to have to deal with the captioning.

The opening title sequence alone gives you an idea what to expect right from the outset — a skyline view of Old Havana by dawn's early light, where aging municipal service trucks wind their way through quiet, sleepy streets, soaking the surrounding low-rise housing projects and Old World-era tenement apartment buildings in billowing clouds of anti-malarial mosquito spray, creating an eerie, otherworldly effect of a city under siege — beautiful and yet disturbing at the same time.

The music, by Mikel Salas, is pure jazz, and jazz of the highest order, as befitting a quartet of mysteries set in the land of Buena Vista Social Club — all flugelhorns and Miles Davis-inspired trumpet duets, set against a fevered beat of Latin tropical rhythms. This is background music of the highest order, a character in its own right but not grating or overwhelming.

If Four Seasons in Havana were simply gorgeous to look at and easy on the ears, that would be reason alone to give it a chance.

It's the story, though, and the textured deeply shaded characters, that elevate it above other TV norms – that and the magnificent, evocative way it tells its stories.

Based on the book series The Havana Quartet by the Cuban novelist Leonardo Padura, it tells the tale of four seemingly unrelated and yet oddly connected murder cases, as seen through the eyes of world-weary would-be-novelist-turned-detective Mario Conde, played with a reluctant yet easy charm by Cuban character actor Jorge Perugorría.

Conde is struggling with writing a novel he knows is going nowhere, spending his waking hours battering an already beaten-down manual typewriter, downing Cuban rum by the bottle and complaining about how there's no place in the whole of Havana where you can get a decent cup of coffee; the best coffee, it seems, is either set aside for export or reserved for the socialist ruling class with tight connections to their coffee-growing, plantation-owning socialist compadres. Conde does police work on the side to pay the bills, delicately navigating his way between corrupt bosses and ambitious, ruthless underlings.

In the opener, The Winds of Lent, a young teacher at the local high school, is found dead in her apartment, the victim of apparent foul play. The on-duty coroner, who's really good at his job — not necessarily an asset to career advancement in a socialist police state — determines what happened and when, in the blink of an eye, and none of it adds up. The deeper Conde looks into the crime, the more complicated it gets. (If Perugorría seems uncanny in the role that may be because, in real life, Perugorría is a film director and painter, as well as an actor. It's easy to bring a life-lived quality to a role if you've lived a lot of life yourself.)

Conde is juggling a burgeoning romance with a mysterious femme fatale at the same time he's trying to get to the bottom of a murder case that seemingly makes no sense, coupled with a lifelong belief that nothing ever works out well for those with good intentions.

This first tale in the quartet is the strongest of the four, along with the last in the series, Autumn Landscapes, which is set in the hours before a ferocious hurricane descends on Havana. The mystery in Autumn Landscapes revolves around the misuse of offshore business accounts and the theft of priceless works of art, confiscated in the early days of the Cuban Revolution and smuggled out to Miami in exchange for the banned, much vilified US hard currency — filthy lucre, literally, to revolutionary thinking true believers, of which there are fewer with each passing day.

Conde is surrounded by a colorful mix of friends and hangers-on, from his best friend and confidant, the cynical and yet warm and witty paraplegic veteran of Cuba's ill-advised involvement in Angola's civil war, to Rojo, aka "Red," a criminal informant Conde uses on occasion to get inside Havana's seedier districts, and yet feels an almost parental affection toward.

Four Seasons in Havana is a real find — a taut, tightly written mystery with worldly, witty dialogue, about a hopeless romantic who wants to retire on the one hand and yet feels an obligation to do right by voiceless victims of crime on the other ("Guys who rob and get away with it piss me off," he says at one point) in a detective series where — surprise! — the sun shines on occasion.

Conde envies J.D. Salinger his writing ability and worships at the altar of Papa Hemingway, who wrote some of his best work in Cuba, as we know. And yet, deep down, he knows he will never finish his own "goddam novel," even though he manages, bit by bit, piece by piece, to solve the murder cases that come his way.

In the end, that's all a man can do, and it's enough.

 
 
 
 
 
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2 Comments
 
 
larry winne
I can't see how to get the english dubbed version. Under the sound setting, there is only Spanish. Is there a trick?
Jan 18, 2020   |  Reply
 
Linda Donovan
There should be two settings, Larry -- Audio (which will be set to Spanish), and Subtitles under which you should be able to select English [CC]. Hope that helps.
Jan 19, 2020
 
 
Linda Donovan
Huh. We'll investigate, Larry.
Jan 19, 2020
 
 
 
Ron
Agree entirely. Since the movies were filmed in Havana it gives viewers a chance to see a side of the city not otherwise seen.
Jan 17, 2020   |  Reply
 
 
 
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