New beginnings are always a curious thing.
They come with the shiny promise of everything new and unsullied, and yet lurking somewhere deep within, is the knowledge, however energetically repressed, that the past is never truly left behind.
Whatever the truth of this observation, in The Extraordinary Journey of Celeste Garcia (El viaje extraordinario de Celeste García), Celeste (María Isabel Díaz) is determined to make the most of her opportunity to escape the banalities and lack of fulfillment of her life in Havana, Cuba, where she works in a planetarium, leading people on a journey through the stars.
Her son Pedrito (Roberto Espinosa) is loving but largely disengaged, her sister Zobeida (Veronica Diaz Viera) avariciousness and opportunistic and her colleagues more interested in presenting themselves to the Cuban regime than forging any kind of lasting bond with their colleague, even when the offer of the most extraordinary of journeys comes her way.
Hers is a life lived in the beiges and grays of the worlds, where life is alive but hardly sparkling or thrilling, and where even the buildings themselves look tired and weary, much like Celeste herself.
This enervating sense of life caught in the headlights of nothing much is given an unexpected jolt when the latest government communique, dry media affairs where cost of living increases or some kind of social reform are announced, announces, as if they’re remarking on the size of the latest soy bean crop, that aliens have not only made contact but have been living in society for a number of years.
Not only that but the visitors from Gryok, where chickens are 100 times larger than our own – cleverly, the information used to convey the planet’s alienness is rendered in terms that are hilariously domestic in their scope – have extended an offer for a group of select human beings to come and live and work with them, just as they have lived and worked with us.
The news, not unsurprisingly cause massive ripples in Cuban society where change has been coming in recent years but in carefully-controlled increments that have given some freedom but not enough to really transform peoples’ lives.
This is change, potential change anyway, on a massive scale, even if when cooler heads prevail, only a small number of people will have their lives materially changed.
Celeste is curiously unmoved, greeting the news with interest but hardly excitement, her response the kind you would expect from someone who has been beaten down again and again and who has ceased to believe in the potential richness of anything, no matter how out of the box remarkable.
This all changes when she discovers that the postcard left at her door on the night her neighbour Polina disappeared is actually an invitation to come to Gryok, one that means Celeste doesn’t have to go through any kind of selection process and essentially skips straight to the head of the line.
This changes everything, and Celeste throws herself into the move to the Aldebaran system where Gryok lies with her usual understated style, though it is obvious the chance to begin again suddenly means everything to her.
The charm of The Extraordinary Journey of Celeste Garcia is the way it takes a fantastical premise and grounds it, with deep humanity and insight into the very real down to earth concerns of its characters.
As one of Celeste’s bunkmates at the preparation camp – Hector Francisco (Néstor Jiménez), Perlita (Yerlín Pérez) and Mirta (Tamara Castellanos) – observes with great truthfulness, everything has something they want to leave behind.
In a series of affecting flashbacks, which don’t stint on the emotional brutality of the traumatic events that shaped Celeste’s current wearied state of being, we come to understand and deeply sympathise with the past that is, suddenly, impelling Celeste to comprehensively upend her existential apple cart.
There is a truthfulness to Celeste, brought to gloriously understated life by María Isabel Díaz, that can’t help but affect you, and while she may not be as demonstrably upbeat as Hector, Perlita and Mirta, she is coming alive in her own small ways, as Augusto (Omar Franco), the neighbourhood butcher who has somehow mysteriously made the cut and cares for her in his own clumsily-executed way, looks on.
Suffused with some astute societal critiques and a willingness to be blunt about the capacity of humanity for wonder and deceit, The Extraordinary Journey of Celeste Garcia is a sci-fi film less concerned with the game-changing aliens than with the people pinning all their hopes and dreams on their arrival.
As Celeste and her bunkmates, and indeed the whole camp, wait for the aliens to touch down in Close Encounters of the Third Kind bombastic glory, and they do in that creepy but awe-inspiring ways beloved by aliens in the movies for decades, we are given plenty of time ruminative time to understand what is driving a wholly disparate group of people to leave everything behind and try again on another planet.
At its heart, the film is an exploration of the way our past never really leaves us, and how even a trip to another planet may not be the solution we are looking for.
While’s Celeste’s journey isn’t quite what she expected, with peace with her past, or at least the promise of it, coming from another place altogether, The Extraordinary Journey of Celeste Garcia puts less faith in the ability of extraterrestrial beings to redraw the landscape of our life than it does in the endless capacity of people to find and embrace hope in the unlikeliest of places.
Mixing humour, pathos, sadness, quirkiness, excitement, banality and the thrill of the extraordinary in equal measure, this charming, affecting film is a joy, a salute to the fact that when all hope appears lost, the unexpected can still rise up and surprise you, though the form it takes may not be what you think it will be.