Anyone who saw 2016’s The Olive Tree will not be disappointed by Yuli, made by the same team, director Iciar Bollain and screenwriter Paul Laverty, who also scripted I, Daniel Blake. It’s the story of ground-breaking Cuban dancer Carlos Acosta, based on his autobiography No Way Home. The mature Acosta plays himself in the film, dancing some electrifying performances. But the real scene-stealer is Edlison Manuel Olbera Núñez, who plays the dancer as a child. Bollain extracts a brilliant performance from him in his debut feature.
Acosta grew up in poverty in the back streets of Havana, a descendant of slaves, as his father is keen to teach him. His father is a towering figure in the film, spotting Carlos’s early talent and forcing him to attend ballet school against his will. The battle of wills continues as Acosta goes on to conquer the dance world, dancing with London’s Royal Ballet, the company’s first black Principal dancer, all the while lonely and far from home, missing his friends and his family.
The film pulls no punches about the drift of Cuba in the years of Acosta’s adolescence, with rising state corruption and popular despondency at the contrast between the grinding poverty of ordinary life and the arrival of wealthy tourists for whom everything is a commodity.
The Times called Yuli “heartbreakingly perfect” and the film won best screenplay at the prestigious San Sebastian International film festival. But you’ll need to look out for it - foreign language films increasingly get squeezed out by the bigger operators, so you may have to persuade your local independent cinema to screen it, or wait for the DVD.
I saw it in a basement auditorium that held barely thirty people - quite a contrast with the screening in Havana last year at the Karl Marx Theatre, which has 5,400 seats. The showing was packed out with around a thousand waiting outside to see a second screening at 12.30 in the morning - a measure not only of the high regard in which Acosta is held in his home town but also of the brilliance of Yuli’s portrayal of his life.