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Sexy, vibrant and daring, this is not your typical Jewish film festival fare

In the annals of Jewish film festivals, “Sin La Habana” is likely the only entry to begin with a Santeria ritual involving the sacrifice of chickens. Sadly, the film, playing as part of New York’s Jewish Film Festival Jan. 15, is also one of a select few to spotlight a Mizrahi bris.

The feature debut of Kaveh Nabatian, who, with Cuban hip-hop producer Pablo Herrera, wrote the screenplay and score, the dazzling, if overdetermined, film begins in the titular Cuban capital. There we meet Leonardo (Yonah Acosta), an Afro-Cuban ballet dancer and his girlfriend Sara (Evelyn Castrado), a lawyer. Together, the pair hatch a plan to seduce one of Leonardo’s tourist salsa students so he can get a visa to a country with better prospects and have Sara follow soon after.

The “90 Day Fiancé”-type ruse ensnares a young Iranian-Jewish Canadian named Nasim (Aki Yaghoubi), who fetishizes Leonardo’s brown body and the tiles of his mother’s rundown home. The story, like the cinematography and soundtrack, is a world divided.

Cuba’s warm tones are highlighted by Bolex film that bleeds orange. A blend of reggaetón and Leonardo’s balletics to Tchaikovsky pair well with Nabatian’s inventive camerawork. Sara and Leo are often trapped in the refracted light of a marble, an object that gains significance as Leo moves to Montreal on Nasim’s invitation.

Montreal is, predictably, cold, and in more ways than one. Leo doesn’t have the right clothes for a Canadian winter. He is rejected by ballet companies – or is only wanted for his “good look” as a Black man. He ultimately finds work at a meat-packing plant. So, frigid indoors, too. Even his Santeria practice is thwarted as he drops a ritual squash off a bridge, only for it not to crack the ice below.

Meanwhile we learn Nasim is living in the house of someone she hardly knows, watching her exotic bird (in this most pat of many avian metaphors, Leonardo seems to form a closer bond with this creature, also plucked from a tropical clime). Nasim’s father disapproves of the direction of her aimless life after she split with her husband. When he sees Nasim at the bris of her nephew, he disowns her for cohabitating with Leo, who he refers to as the Farsi equivalent of the N-word.

Nabatian, whose cast is primarily first-time actors (Acosta is a real ballerino who took a break from the Munich Ballet to film; Nasim’s dad is played by his own Iranian-Jewish father), strives to complicate the snap judgment picture of Nasim and Leo’s arrangement while plumbing their cultural differences.

Nasim is not naïve about Leo’s motives, nor is she above deceit of her own. Everyone is using everyone else. But the mechanisms for Leo, Nasim and Sara’s scheming are too well-plotted and dense with symbolism to make us care as much as we might. If the characters feel real and (mostly) act in ways that are believable, the world Nabatian built is strikingly accommodating of coincidence and signs from the universe.

Then again, there is something mystical about the trappings of this world. The enchantment of Leonardo’s black-and-white remembrances of an animal sacrifice resonate, and find an interesting complement in Nasim’s pseudo-magical stained glass creations. With that, the ballet, the images of a vague cosmos or snow globe, the sideways shots set to a propulsive soundtrack sampling Caribbean and Persian beats, there are too many ideas for the emotional reality to land. Every time it settles down with an intimate character beat, some new bit of pizzazz distracts. It’s not always clear why it’s there.

“Sin La Habana” is a sexy, vibrant and daring piece of filmmaking. (And, let’s be real, less stodgy than most movies that get Jewish film fest slots – perhaps by dint of not being very explicitly Jewish at all.) It’s also the work of a director searching for a style by trying all the ones available to him. Nabatian’s sampler platter approach is always interesting, and often thrilling. But it may not leave you full.

“Sin La Habana” is playing at the New York Jewish Film Festival Saturday, Jan. 16 and Monday Jan. 17. For tickets and more information, click here.

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