Chico and Rita aims to be an epic love story across the ages, but it falls a little flat for me. Chico is a gifted musician in Havana, 1948. He is a bit of a player – he likes that music brings him free drinks and easy women. In order to enter a big music competition Chico needs a singer, and when he hears Rita sing, he is captivated. He convinces her to sing with him and then takes her to bed. All seems well until Chico’s girlfriend shows up. Although Rita is convinced to sing in the competition with Chico, she is still angry — until they win, that is. They have a blissful month together until Chico gets jealous, jumps to conclusions, and cheats on her. With a broken heart, Rita signs a contract to go to sing in New York City.
The whole novel is like this. Chico tries to win over Rita, succeeds for a bit, then gets jealous or makes assumptions and loses her again. Their relationship is set against the backdrop of post-World War II Cuba, America, and Europe. They both experience some musical success, although they have to struggle against the racism of the time.
I had a couple problems with this novel. First, I found Chico to be a very unsympathetic character. His sexism and attitude that women are possessions really irked me. Although, I suppose he is accurate to his time. And I found the happy ending a little too pat.
The graphic novel is a transcription of the animated movie of the same name. The animated movie uses the “trace live action” technique of animating, which is my second problem with the graphic novel (the movie web site explains more about it). This is not a style that I like very much, either animated or drawn. I appreciate that it is a style, and that it can present different challenges for animators, but mostly it just comes across as a bit flat to me. The outlines of the characters are too thick and dark with no room for nuance, and the coloring is monochromatic, with little shadowing. I thought the strength of the technique was in the backgrounds. The cityscapes are beautifully rendered with exquisite detail. I peeked at the DVD to see if I would like the animation better that the drawing. Not so much. Although it was nice to hear the music the book talks about.
Despite all this, I can see why other reviews have been so positive. The animation technique is difficult, and the novel is telling a story about the Cuban music scene that is rarely heard in America. The 1950s were both racist and sexist according to today’s standards and it is not a flaw in the story to show that, even if it makes the characters less sympathetic to a twenty-first century audience.
Recommended for adults (some drug use, sex, violence, and nudity), though it may be of interest to mature teens.
Chico and Rita
by Javier Mariscal
Art by Fernando Trueba
Publisher Age Rating: (Adult)