The Last Rumba of Papa Montero Review

AKA: La Ultima Rumba de Papa Montero
Genre: Metafiction/Docufiction/Musical
Year Released: 1991
Distributor: ArtMattan
Origin: Cuba/Martinique
Running Time: 52 minutes
Rating/Recommended Audience: 13+
Related Films/Series: N/A
For Fans Of: West Side Story, 8 1/2, The Black Mozart In Cuba, Guardafronteras, U-Carmen
Notes:
-This film was part of the 2 disc Afro-Cuba: Yesterday & Today set from ArtMattan.
Fun Facts:
-The Last Rumba of Papa Montero was directed by the late Octavio Cortazar who was also responsible for The Teacher, Guardafronteras, and For the First Time.

-The dancers in this movie were actually part of El Conjunto Folklorico Nacional de Cuba.

-There have been multiple Papa Monteros that have existed in the rumba scene, but no one has figured out who was the real one. Some descriptions have varies from a lean snazzy dresser to someone who weighed 350 lbs.

ArtMattan has certainly exposed me to multiple films about Africa and the African diaspora at large. What I didn’t expect was to review something involving Cuba so soon. For those that may or may not remember, my first experiencing watching and reviewing a Cuban film was the animated movie Vampires in Havana! a while back. That Caribbean nation got a co-production when I reviewed the amazing Black Mozart in Cuba documentary. This time, I get to review something from a different Cuba director while also having a co-production from another country I’ve never covered before: Martinique! I also get to review another musical which I haven’t done in a long time. Than again, I didn’t expect a movie like this to happen as it broke the fourth wall while also having songs and dancing in between.

Does this metafictional musical deliver? Let’s find out.

The Last Rumba of Papa Montero is about a musical involving the life of a mythical rumbero musician of the same name. It starts out with a rather unorthodox funeral procession as people drum on his casket before he’s buried with other rumba musicians in Havana. The spirits of past rumberos dance near their grave sites after Papa Montero is buried. Unfortunately, this was all staged by bickering filmmakers who can’t decide to make a documentary or a flamboyant musical biopic of this legendary musician. The director and screenwriters ask around Havana to find people who know about Papa Montero. There’s a parallel story being filmed which covers the things alleged about Montero’s life as he’s caught in a fatal love triangle despite all the singing and dancing around him. How will this story be seen through?

I can’t make this up. There is a musical that is a metafiction work while being rooted in Cuban musical history. Name one other musical movie with a concept like this regardless of the country it’s based in. I’ll wait. Seriously, the plot and writing of The Last Rumba of Papa Montero is way more original than I think a lot of people give credit for and it has one of the most unique fusions of genres I’ve ever seen. Major props to Octavio Cortazar for coming up with such a movie like this one. The musical elements were fantastic. The soundtrack was a great listen and the choreography was very creative such as the people rotating chairs while playing cards, the casket drumming, or with the bottle dance battle scene. Yes, there is definitely a West Side Story influence with the people dancing in the street (music pun not intended), but it most certainly doesn’t rip it off with the cinema verite/naturalistic filming aesthetic which is a huge antithesis to so many musical films that can be overproduced. I wondered if that was some kind of deconstruction with that kind of production. The fact and fiction dualism was fascinating with the filmmakers arguing or doing these random interviews with people who may have known Papa Montero who were most likely nonprofessional actors, but they acted like normal people being interviewed. One thing I also noticed was how diverse the cast was and there was a huge mix of Black Cubans as characters as well as dancers. Race doesn’t become much of an issue besides the Gabriela character being mentioned as biracial in one of the songs, and even then it was more in passing than something in your face. There were also white and Latinx Cubans who were clearly visible, so The Last Rumba of Papa Montero beats the Deggans Rule which is a huge plus. I like it when movies are able to pull that off. There was a good amount of pacing as this movie is just under an hour with both the docufiction and musical moments having a healthy balance.

The Last Rumba of Papa Montero does have a few missteps here and there. While I applaud the originality of this movie, some of the metafiction elements did ruin the flow especially after some big musical moments. I get that it was supposed to blur between fact and reality, but sometimes there was some whiplash in certain scenes. The screenwriter character felt a bit like a blank slate and observer to me even if he did help the plot progress. Going back to the Gabriela character and racial representation, maybe this is me being from America, but I wasn’t a fan of them calling her a “mulatta” when describing her. Maybe that word is more acceptable in Cuba and other Spanish-speaking nations, but there are some VERY unfortunate implications in an American context especially with the circumstances centuries ago with how most biracial (in this case, Black/Caucasian mixed) babies were born and I’m just going to leave it at that. Some of the songs had missing subtitles in the official DVD release which got distracting for me. The biggest flaws of The Last Rumba of Papa Montero would be the production and dated aspects of it. This was clearly a low-budget early 90s movie which really shows. There were VHS distortions in some scenes, so the remastering wasn’t all there, the effects were very cheesy like the picture-in-picture scenes, choppy slow-mo, still shot fades, dated title effects, and the camera work looks archaic in 21st century eyes. Not only that, but there were dead giveaways like the filming equipment, fashion, and the hairstyles. Real talk, Gabriela looked like a Cuban Saved by the Bell character in one of her scenes with how her hair was done. If you don’t like low-budget productions or cinema verite, then I think you won’t enjoy this movie as much.

This was a great entry into Cuban cinema. I was pleasantly surprised by how original the movie was with the fusion of metafiction and musical theatre. This felt almost like a real documentary involving a behind-the-scenes moment of a real movie. The songs and dance routines were amazing. However, this movie is so obviously 90s with the presentation and the low budget filmmaking could turn off some viewers. The Last Rumba of Papa Montero was the fourth wall demolishing musical movie that we didn’t know we needed regardless. Despite the production elements not being up to par, I saw far more good than bad. I strongly recommend this to anyone into more adventurous cinema.

Adjustable Point System:
Add 1 point if you like rumba music or at least music associated with Latin American culture.
Subtract 1-3 points if you want pristine production.
Subtract 1-2 points if you want to watch a real documentary.

Pros:
-Very original movie concept
-Amazing soundtrack and choreography
-Deggans Rule compliant

Cons:
-Obviously a low-budget work and dated elements
-Some metafiction parts suffered from plot whiplash
-The “mulatta” description could seriously rub people the wrong way about Gabriela

Final Score: 9/10 Points

Content Warning: The Last Rumba of Papa Montero should be okay for teens and up. There’s drinking and smoking going on. There was some swearing, but it never overloaded the dialogue. A major element of the plot involves a murder which happens to a character, but it wasn’t graphic at all despite said character getting stabbed. One scene that could briefly raise eyebrows is Gabriela dancing with Antonio since there’s a clear age difference (the latter is clearly a teenager) and while the scene is brief, I will say that it wouldn’t have happened if the ages or genders were reversed even though nothing sexual happens between the two.

-Curtis Monroe

All photos property of their respective owners and used under US “Fair Use” laws. The Last Rumba of Papa Montero is property of ArtMattan. The screenshot is from YouTube and is property of ArtMattan.

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