Cast: Joaquim de Almeida, Aunjanue Ellis, Bill Cobbs, Ruth Negga, Sharon Lawrence, Andre Royo, Marcus Lyle Brown
Its not very often that entertainment and medicine come together, let alone in such an effective and purposeful way as in Una Vida. The movie is based on a novel, written by acclaimed Neuroscientist Dr. Nicolas Bazan, about an extraordinary street musician named Una Vida whose deteriorating memory comes alive through her music. Dr. Alvaro Cruz, himself an acclaimed Neuroscientist, takes a break from research after his own mother dies of Alzheimer’s and subsequently discovers and befriends Una Vida, taking up her cause. The resulting film is not only a beautiful story about music, friendship, and loss, but provokes an intense interest in Alzheimer’s disease and the status of the current research. And that’s exactly what I found most fascinating about the Q&A with Richie Adams, Nicolas Bazan, and Brent Caballero after the film screened at Vail Film Festival this weekend. The audience was more interested in the science and research behind Alzheimer’s than they were about the actual film, which is a rare thing in a crowd of people who are obviously there for the movies. In fact, Dr. Bazan received the majority of audience questions, a testament to the effectiveness of the film he helped produce.
The film itself, of course, is beautifully done. It takes place around Frenchman Street in New Orleans and captures the character and history of the location without drawing attention away from the characters or story. In fact, the location subtly enhances the characters, enriching them with the surrounding environment. Director Richie Adams also avoids an easy pitfall in a movie like this, and that’s letting the musical aspect overtake the narrative or else integrating it awkwardly, taking the audience out of the story. On the contrary, the music is integrated completely naturally and is an underlying driving factor for the story and characters. The direction is simple and direct – nothing flashy or distracting – and captures the dignity, tragedy, and joy of the characters in quiet, unobtrusive exploration. It is, simply, a well made movie that tells the story it intends.
Of course, the actors also play an integral part in telling the story and Una Vida is perfectly ask in all aspects. Aunjanue Ellis (The Help) plays the title character and drifts between lucidity and dementia with alarming ease. But she also painfully conveys the struggle to preserve her basic human dignity and the fear at finding herself lost in her own mind. It must be a terrifying thing to know that you are slowly losing your memory and the ability to think and function; and in her lucid moments, Una Vida shows us that fear and desperation in tragic clarity. Joaquim de Almeida is also an important presence of hope and patience – not just of the medical man and researcher, but of human kind. Of course, Almeida’s Dr. Cruz does not come close to approaching the depth of charisma, charm, and genuine passion that the real Dr. Bazan brings to everything he does and to everyone he meets. I only met him briefly, but in that time he introduced me to every passing acquaintance of his like I was an old friend.
And Dr. Bazan and the entire production team associated with Una Vida is rightly proud of the film and the important cause to which is draws attention and support. Their pride and passion for the film shines throughout – a fact that was apparent to the Vail Film Festival audiences who voted it Audience Favorite. Producer Brett Caballero told me how he loves working on independent films mainly because they are honest, genuine, and unique and his support of Una Vida is a testament to that fact. It is an honest, genuine, unique, and loving piece of art – and art with purpose, which is rare indeed.