The arts, especially cinema, have lost a longtime partisan. Sonia Cullinen, a Wilmington resident, was a guiding light of the Burlington-based Vermont International Film Festival. Until her death last week at age 91, the New York City native remained a tireless advocate of the medium and the message: peace, the environment, justice and human rights.
Sonia was predeceased in March 2003 by documentary-filmmaker George Cullinen, her festival cofounder and husband of 62 years. In childhood, she was a professional modern dancer. Her younger brother, the late Jerome Robbins, began in ballet and became a world-famous choreographer. He went on to direct such hits as West Side Story for stage and screen.
George, a gentle soul, fought with the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War of the late 1930s. The Cullinens were always progressive-minded activists, which brought them under intense government scrutiny during the McCarthy Era.
Their primary motivation for starting the festival in 1985 was to foster awareness about the very real possibility of nuclear annihilation. "You cannot solve problems with war," Sonia said during an October 2001 Seven Days interview. "We have no choice but to struggle against the tide, or we drown all together."
According to The New York Times, Sonia suffered a heart attack in the audience while awaiting the opening-night curtain at a Manhattan revival of Fiddler on the Roof. It was a somewhat cosmic coincidence: Her brother directed the musical's Broadway debut in 1964.
Sonia Cullinen was a preteen in the early 1920s when she toured Cuba with an avant-garde troupe led by Isadora Duncan's daughter Irma. It's unlikely, however, that they ever witnessed the kind of choreography that can now be seen in Dirty Dancing 2: Havana Nights.
The new movie, which just opened in the Burlington area, concerns adolescent hoofers in the 1950s moving to the beat of sizzling Afro-Cuban music with explicitly sensual gestures. Is this realistic, or an anachronism dreamed up in our sex-obsessed times? Fidel Castro might know; he was poised to take over the Caribbean island nation back then.
The revolution is a compelling backdrop to this otherwise ordinary tale of pubescent passion expressed through variants of rumba and salsa. With a soundtrack that mixes Latin tunes and period rock 'n' roll, two star-crossed lovers enact a steamy pas de deux as they bridge an ethnic divide.
A blonde American WASP named Katey (Romola Garai) has just moved to Cuba with her family. She meets Javier (Diego Luna), a Hispanic lad initially working as a busboy at an upscale hotel. He takes her to La Rosa Negra, a downtown club where local revelers boogie with torrid abandon.
Katey is fleeing the arrogant racism of the bourgeoisie along with her own uptight persona as a high school brainiac. Javier's father has been "disappeared" by Fulgencio Batista, the dictator whose oppressive rule will soon be overthrown.
For good measure, Javier's brother Carlos (Rene Lavan) is part of the underground insurgency. Remarkably, director Guy Ferland respects that idealism for what it was, and doesn't allow 2004 to pass judgment on 1958. An ironic footnote: The picture's release coincides with a decision by President Bush to tighten travel restrictions to Cuba.
The first Dirty Dancing, a Jew-Gentile romantic whirl set in the Catskills, lends little beyond its title to this not-quite-a-prequel. The most meaningful connection comes with the cameo by Patrick Swayze, whose hip-swiveling hunk from the wrong side of the tracks enlivened the 1987 original. The actor shows up here as an instructor of ballroom dance, which Katey and Javier must merge with their looser La Rosa Negra steps in order to win a competition.
Apart from historical momentum, the film is buoyed by youthful exuberance and the movie-star magnetism of Luna, best known for his portrayal of a horny hombre in Y Tu Mama Tambien. But the story sinks whenever Sela Ward waltzes into the room as Katey's disapproving mother. Her performance suggests a bad soap opera, which is also evoked by simplistic plot points in the script. Why make both parents former ballroom dancers, a ludicrous biographical detail in this saga about kids who can really cut a rug?
Another ironic footnote: Last month the U.S. State Department kept members of the melodic Buena Vista Social Club from traveling to Los Angeles to attend the Grammy Awards. The Yankee culture war continues.