Cinema Cuba Libre

In a Sight & Sound article from 1969 Andi Engel writes, “The problems of the Cuban film-makers are (a) to surmount their technical difficulties (mainly lack of supplies caused by American blockade) and (b) to break down the reluctance of non-Cuban audiences to look at their films at all, and to make them look without prejudice.” Or as director Alejandro Bruges puts it on First Run Feature’s The Cuban Masterworks Collection, “Contemporary Cuban cinema is like a 20-meter shark. It exists, but nobody ever sees it.”

This set, containing five features along with short documentaries and narratives, tries to catch up on time lost due to economics and politics to shed light on a group of filmmakers that operated within Cuba’s state-run Instituto Cubano del Arte y la Industria Cinematográficos (ICAIC) from the ’60s to the ’80s.

It is impossible to track the 40-year history of a country’s art form over the course of five films. The Cuban Masterworks Collection points at two dominant strains — broad satiric comedies and high historical melodramas – from prominent directors Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, Julio Garcia Espinosa, and Humberto Solás. Limiting the range makes sense, but this otherwise well-packaged set is sorely lacking in any documentary or text materials that presents an overarching view of the ICAIC’s founding, rate of production, and trends in filmmaking styles and genres covered.

Many of the filmmakers were trained on documentaries and newsreels in the final years of the Batista government and the years following Castro’s coup. (Narrative films required organization and resources that weren’t available.) According to Engel, only Espinosa and Alea had received film training, in Rome, prior to their founding of the ICAIC. It’s not surprising that they created its earliest films of note.

Alea’s Twelve Chairs (Las Doce sillas) is a comedy about selfish bourgeois Hipólito (Enrique Santiesteban) who sticks around in Cuba after the revolution to track down the jewels hidden in one of 12 chairs seized by the government for redistribution. Espinosa’s The Adventures of Juan Quin Quin (Las Aventuras de Juan Quin Quin) is a satiric epic that follows amiable peasant Juan (Júlio Martínez) and his best friend Jachero (Erdwin Fernández) as their attempts to pay off a debt result in a bumbling journey across the Cuban countryside — working as bullfighters, circus performers, and farmers — until they end up as slightly less bumbling guerilla fighters and revolutionary heroes.

Both films play off Don Quixote with oblivious misguided leads and their long-suffering Sancho Panza-like sidekicks in tow. In Twelve Chairs that sidekick, Oscar (Reinaldo Miravalles), comes to replace the lead as hero. As Hipólito’s actions become more selfish and destructive in their stereotypically bourgeois way, Oscar voices his support of revolutionary values ever louder. This is the film’s undoing: good natured suffering can be funny and endearing; a sidekick as self-righteous preacher isn’t. Twelve Chairs comes closer than any film in the set to the starchy didactic utopianism prevalent in the worst of Communist state filmmaking, particularly in a scene when the characters run across a collective sugar cane farm and Oscar leaps at the chance to join in the work like a kid set loose at Chuck E. Cheese.

The Adventures of Juan Quin Quin is so off-the-wall its propaganda never sticks; most of its satire is aimed at poking fun at capitalistic hypocrisy and colonialist storytelling from westerns to adventure novels more than propping up ideology, anyway. It is the most exhilarating film of the set, crammed with visual puns and ingenuous humor. The action shifts in audacious jump cuts that zigzag through a nonlinear structure and the action is commented on by ironic use of narration, title cards, and stock footage. Each episode climaxes with a comic action set piece such as a cart with a caged lion rolling through a town straight out of Buster Keaton and a bar fight were a Miller “High Life” advertisement hovers over the participants’ heads.

Stylistically these two films combine revolutionary fervor with the formalistic experimentation and classical irreverence rejuvenating global cinema in the sixties. In the early ‘60s the ICAIC sent technical apprentices to Soviet cities like Prague and the crisp, well-structured but loose and wry images are reminiscent of satiric Czech New Wave comedies by directors like Milos Forman and Jiří Menzel.

They also avoid the forced ideological bromides or wink-wink governmental criticism of other Communist films at the time. The filmmakers appear to be more interested in channeling their enthusiasm for film as promised by their new government rather than promoting said government. The founding ICAIC charter says that what they needed was “a publicity campaign and a readjustment of the average developed taste, which has been seriously damaged by the production and showing of films of a commercial nature which are dramatically and ethically disgusting and technically and artistically dull.” Film geeks had been given ample funds and experimental license in a country that previously had almost no film industry at all and there’s a joyousness to these early efforts that’s hard to deny whatever your feelings about Castro.

The “artistically dull”, “films of a commercial nature” that the charter spoke about were probably the formulaic melodramas of the fifties. They never went away and the three other features included in Cuban MasterworksCecilia, Amada, and A Successful Man — are early ’80s melodramas from director Solás. They quite explicitly reference the epic sweep of David Wolper’s US television miniseries and Latin American telenovelas of the period and the romantic clichés of a thousand beefcake-stamped paperbacks. Watching the set in chronological order the switch from sixties innovation to eighties conventions is initially depressing, early promise gives way to soggy video.

However Solás has a great talent for teasing the complexities of race and class that often drive romantic tragedies and the tragic divas that populate them. Cecilia, a mediocre film about the doomed love affair between a plantation owner’s son (Nelson Villagra) and an ambitious mulatto girl (Daisy Granados), emphasizes the use of the body in Catholic and folk religious ceremonies and in slavery and affluence to explore ideas of physical and spiritual under external and internal pressures. (Though, weirdly, this includes a depiction of “whiteness” as evil by caking powder on the actors’ faces so they look like the vampires in Dark Shadows.)

Amada starts out as equally trite period piece. Fragile dreamer Amada (the great Eslinda Nuñéz looking desperate and haunted) flirts with her poet cousin Marciel and is systematically shattered by her callow politician husband and his mistress. Solás, once again using Catholic iconography of suffering and sacrifice, first turns the story on the lonely burdens Amada must shoulder (Marciel turns out to be a thoughtless cad) and then on how the self-centered actions of all the characters is mutually self-destructive. Solás equates the corrupt Cuba of 1914, fueled by the riches of a sugar cane boom, as operating under delusional concept of independence on both the state and personal level.

Both Cecilia and Amada suffer a bit from languid, predictable structures. The captivating and well-paced A Successful Man (Un Hombre de éxito) is the strongest entry from Solás. It tracks the moral fall of an ambitious politician, Javier (César Évora), from the early thirties to the rise of Castro. Javier tries to play both sides of the constantly shifting Cuban power structures, often subservient to world superpowers, but ends up “burning his candle at both ends.” His story is juxtaposed with his more upstanding brother Darío (Jorge Trinchet) setting off thematic plays on wealth and power that deepens and complicates as the story develops. Javier’s story mirrors that of Michael Corleone’s and the accomplished cinematography by Livio Delgado appropriates Gordon Willis’ use of sulfuric darkness in The Godfather Part II and the sharp white, red, browns, and blacks of Vittorio Stororo in The Conformist to capture personal and societal corruption. Solás even hints that Castro is just one more interchangeable politician to whom Javier can pledge cynical allegiance.

Politics is unavoidable in these films, but tracking wide outlooks and trends in the Cuban Masterworks is difficult, especially since it contains a limited selected output that was most likely chosen for its non-alienating relatively apolitical content. Most noticeably missing are Solas’ Lucia and Alea’s Memories of Underdevelopment, two films that received a good deal of attention in the late ’60s at home and abroad for what Engel claims was “a fusion of their political ideas and a modern film form.” Instead, the primary goal of the set seems to correspond with Engel’s call “to break down the reluctance of non-Cuban audiences to look at their films at all, and to make them look without prejudice.” That still depends on an audience willing to pick this set up from the glut of DVD releases, but it should succeed, at least among film geeks, in gaining greater exposure for what will hopefully be the beginning of more releases from this varied and vibrant artistic community.