Cuban history, memories, and lingering class divisions come into sharp focus when Silvia Morini, after nearly 40 years in the United States, sets out to revisit the palatial home of her youth in Havana, Cuba. Accompanied by her son Guillermo, who was nine years old when the family fled Castro’s revolution, Silvia finds the once-famous, ornate mansion still standing, but now converted into a government foreign exchange bank. As related in Stephen Olsson’s revealing new documentary, Our House in Havana, the vivacious 68-year-old Silvia’s nostalgia for an aristocratic, pre-Castro world inevitably rubs up against contemporary Cuban realities. This intimate, tragi-comic journey through pre- and post- revolutionary Cuba breaks through deep-seated barriers to reveal a refreshing glimmer of hope.
“La casa Italiana,” the beautiful, Italianate, richly furnished former Morini family home epitomized the life of privilege led by Cuba’s pre-revolutionary elite. Silvia’s emotionally-charged memories of that life, recounted on the eve of her departure and again as she stands in front of the building that was her heritage, include neighbors and servants from the warm glow of earlier times. But Silvia finds La casa Italiana locked and confronts a guard who will not let her enter. And when she later encounters some of the family’s former servants, their recollections and points of view evoke a reality profoundly at odds with the one to which she had steadfastly clung.
The Morini family home
With mounting disappointment, Silvia persists in looking for what remains of a lost world of high culture, debutante balls and yacht clubs. Against the backdrop of today’s lively, but impoverished Cuba, Silvia wanders through Havana, encountering working-class Cubans of her own generation, still proud of the revolution’s gains and fearful of its reversals, along with restive, younger Cubans seeking a future not frozen by the politics of the past. Though disconsolate over the past she lost, Silvia, warm-hearted and outgoing by nature, begins to rediscover the rich sights, sounds, tastes and people of Cuba, the building blocks of her own identity.
Back in the U.S., in the wake of her much-anticipated return trip, Silvia slides into isolation and deep depression. She struggles with the complicated emotions engendered by her bittersweet homecoming. Neither her nostalgic memories of a pre-Castro paradise, nor her historic intransigence toward revolutionary Cuba, can survive her experience intact. Silvia’s depression lifts only when, against the odds, she undergoes a dramatic change of heart, reversing her decades-old “pro blockade” political stance. Finally, Silvia Morini, daughter of a sugar plantation owner, emerges as a social activist, lobbying Jesse Helms’ office to end the U.S. blockade, and ultimately becoming, as she puts it, “more human.”
To make Our House in Havana, Olsson and co-producer Carolyn Zaff agreed to follow Silvia without attempting to direct her movements or encounters. Through the use of compelling archival footage and Morini family photos and home movies, the filmmakers succeed at dramatically visualizing Silvia’s personal life and cherished memories and set these against the powerful drama of the Cuban Revolution.
“Following Silvia was an intuitive decision…after three long distance phone calls, we took a deep breath and decided to make her our protagonist,” says Olsson. “She was leaving a week later and she told us up front she wouldn’t make any special concessions to the filmmakers. She welcomed us to join her, but what she wanted to see, after 40 years in exile, was paramount to her. It was certainly tough running after a subject and having so little control, but this approach took us inside Cuba and inside our character’s heart, psyche and world view in a very personal way.”