This year, Havana Glasgow Film Festival examines the career and legacy of the most acclaimed and influential Cuban filmmaker Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, with screenings of his films and a documentary by his partner and collaborator Mirtha Ibarra, who will be in attendance to discuss their work together. Brian Beadie writes about his important body of work and legacy ahead of the fest.
If Cuban cinema still remains undervalued internationally, no one did more to put it on the map than Tomás Gutiérrez Alea. His 1968 film Memorias del subdesarrollo (Memories of Underdevelopment) would dazzle American and European critics, announcing Cuban cinema as a force to be reckoned with, and is still often regarded as the greatest Cuban film ever made. A decade and a half later, his Fresa y chocolate (Strawberry and Chocolate) would be the first film to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language for its witty and humane take on gay life in Cuba.
Titón, as he was affectionately known, is still revered on the island today by filmmakers, both as mentor and role model. Certainly, no other filmmaker so embodied the spirit of the Cuban revolution, while simultaneously criticising aspects of its execution.
Like the other preeminent Cuban filmmaker of the time, Humberto Solas, Alea’s cinematic formation had come in Italy, under the influence of neorealism, while studying film at the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia in Rome alongside Julio García Espinosa. On returning to Cuba they would co-direct a short, El Mégano, about the miserable existence of charcoal burners, which would be banned outright by the Batista regime, but was shown clandestinely.
They would seize the opportunity given them by the Cuban Revolution in 1959 by becoming involved in the founding of the Instituto Cubano del Arte y la Industria Cinematográficos (ICIAC), the Cuban film foundation dedicated to communicating revolutionary and transformative ideas to Cuban society, with Alea becoming its preeminent director, and Espinosa its leading scriptwriter and theorist.
While focussed on documentaries, ICIAC produced many narrative feature films, with Alea’s Historias de la revolución (Stories of the Revolution) being the first, if not the best product. A film trying to describe the history and possibilities of the revolution using the techniques of neorealism, an aesthetic which had been developed in another country in another decade to describe the aftermath of another situation, World War II, the film may have pleased the authorities and the Moscow International Film Festival, where it was an award winner – but Alea was disasatisfied. He felt that neorealism was no longer adequate to describe the new reality, and didn’t want to follow in the faux heroic footsteps of Socialist Realism that was the official style of Communism. Rather, he sought what he called a cinema “not of escapism but of dialectical negation, whose goal is the transformation of reality through revolutionary concerns.”
Death of a Bureaucrat
However, he still wished to be able to critique the revolution in order to hone its aims, which could be a risky business in a post-revolutionary Communist state. The solution? Comedy, as evinced by La Muerte de un burócrata (Death of a Bureaucrat), a sly satire on one of the most complained about aspects of socialist states – bureaucracy – and a subject he would still be dealing in his last film Guantanamera, thirty years later.
If the film is ostensibly an attack on officials who end up serving their own pointless ends over that of the people they’re supposed to serve, the film’s message is buried beneath a torrent of high sixties style and references to other films, with the feel of a young director in thrall to cinema, working out his influences, from Chaplin to Bergman to Bunuel. The latter director would be a touchstone for Alea, who would riff on his El ángel exterminador (The Exterminating Angel) for Los sobrevivientes (The Survivors), a satire on the Cuban aristocracy during the Revolution, where the rich end up eating themselves.
Alea himself never became an auteur with an instantly identifiable style; as he summarised Espinosa’s manifesto for Cuban Cinema, For an Imperfect Cinema, the aim was to “put technique in the service of imagination and not the reverse.” Ultimately, what unites all his films is their wit and humane approach to their – often flawed – subjects.
Memories of Underdevelopment
No film better exemplifies this approach than Memories of Underdevelopment, which still stands as one of the most sophisticated films to emerge from anywhere in the late sixties, one that is still relevant today. Daringly mixing different styles from fiction to documentary with a self-reflexive edge, it observes the aftermath of the revolution from the viewpoint of a complacent, bored playboy who couldn’t get it together to flee to the States with his partner, preferring instead to stew in self hatred while ogling the women of Havana from his balcony. Criticising the Revolution from a counterrevolutionary viewpoint may be the last thing you would expect from a radical Cuban film, but the film adeptly builds layers of irony as the protagonist ensnares himself in his fate with a sixteen year old working class girl he takes advantage of. You can’t help feeling that Alea has some sympathies with his antihero, or really believe that it got made at all, but the presence of Castro’s friend Alberto Guevara at ICIAC, and his insistence on the autonomy of art, allowed for remarkable work to flourish.
While Cuban audiences flocked to the film to be made aware of the contradictions of their existence (the desired effect), the film also gained considerable international attention, with American critics misreading it as a dissident work, and Andrew Sarris hailing Alea as a Cuban Solzhenitsyn! Having said that, he was still refused a visa to visit New York to pick up an award for the film. Alea would define his own position as “a man who makes criticism inside the revolution, who wants to ameliorate the process, to perfect it, but not to destroy it.”
With this success under his belt, Alea embarked on his most ambitious work, a series of historical films on colonialism and slavery, race relations being another aspect of Cuban society that the Revolution was supposed to have solved.
Una pelea cubana contra los demonios (A Cuban Fight Against Demons) based on a classic ethnographic text, would prove to be his most controversial film, harking back to 1672 to examine the corrosive effects of Christianity and Colonialism on Cuba in a high modernist style with vertiginous camerawork and an immersive score, The film, which saw the island plagued by the twin menaces of priests and pirates, may have been more in dialogue with the cinema of other Latin American countries – such as Glauber Rocha and the cinema novo of Brazil – and successfully alienated the Cuban establishment and confused audiences.
A script he worked on with Espinosa about the abolition of slavery, El otro Francisco (The Other Francisco), would be handed over to the Afro-Cuban director Sergio Giral in 1975, making it the first feature film to be released by an Afro-Cuban director. It wasn’t the first, however to have been made by an Afro-Cuban director; that honour would go to Sara Gómez, whose De cierta manera (One way or Another) had been shot in 1974, but abandoned on her tragic, premature death. This landmark of Cuban cinema would only be released in 1977, after Alea and Espinosa worked together to complete a final version.
Indeed, Alea’s generosity and inspiration to other filmmakers was legendary, and reciprocated by such figures as Juan Carlos Tabio, who would codirect Alea’s last films with him as he succumbed to cancer.
Alea’s most celebrated film of the seventies however would prove to be La última cena (The Last Supper), an excoriating satire on slavery, colonialism and how religion was used as glue to bind them together. This film would be inspired both by a historical event where a sugar plantation owner had held a banquet for his slaves at Easter to instruct them in Christianity, and Bunuel’s subversion of the Christian iconography of the Last Supper in Viridiana. The film perfectly illustrates both Alea’s kinship to and differences from Bunuel. If Alea’s film begins by confronting us with the horror of slavery, its centrepiece is a lengthy satirical dialogue where the plantation owner instructs his charges in the importance of Christian charity. If the Spanish anarchist revels in the paradoxes of Catholicism to show how the church perverts desire and ridicules the counterproductive effects of charity, the Cuban socialist envisages Spanish colonialist and Christian hypocrisy inspiring a slave rebellion, one put down in the most brutal fashion with the minimum of mercy.
Proving to be another international success, the film was screened worldwide in cinemas and on TV, where it provoked this intriguing review by William McIlvanney in The Glasgow Herald. Perhaps most importantly for Alea, it would be the first film he would work on with Mirtha Ibarra, who would become his partner and another vital collaborator.
Alea with Mirtha Ibarra
Hasta cierto punto (Up to a Certain Point) would be centred around her presence, playing Lisa, a female worker from the Cuban docks who becomes the subject of a film by a middle-aged director seeking to make a film about the problem of machismo, not realising that he’s part of the problem, as he falls in love with her. While the Cuban revolution was supposed to encourage gender inequality, lingering traces of Latino machismo would prove hard to dispel, as Sara Gomez had explored in her work, and as this film’s title alludes to. As in Memories, Alea was again mixing documentary with fiction in a witty, self-reflexive film that engaged with and updated Gomez’s observations on gender and social class.
Hasta cierto punto
Another consequence of machismo is homophobia, which Alea and Ibarra challenged with their greatest success together, Fresa y chocolate (Strawberry and Chocolate). Cuba was still perceived abroad as a homophobic country, partially as a result of an infamous documentary made by an old colleague of Alea’s, Nestor Almendros’ Mauvaise Conduite (Improper Conduct) in 1983, chronicling Castro’s brutal imprisonment of gay men in rehabilitation camps.
Almendros’ film had gained much attention, he himself having fled the Revolution to live as an openly gay man in France, where he would establish himself as one of the world’s most remarkable cinematographers, renowned for his work with natural light for Truffaut, Rohmer and Terrence Malick.
In fact, homosexual acts between men over the age of 16 had been decriminalised on the island in 1979 – making it more liberal than Scotland, for instance – and Castro had publically apologised for the treatment of gay men by the time Fresa y chocolate was made in 1994. The film itself though was set back in bad old days of the 1970s, as an idealistic student David tries to spy on and entrap Diego, an openly gay man, who in his turn tries to seduce the hunky young student. The metaphor of strawberry and chocolate ice cream for having different sexual tastes struck a chord internationally, as did the film’s freewheeling humour and charm, making a star out of Jorge Perugorria.
However, as Roger Ebert pointed out at the time, “Strawberry and Chocolate is not a movie about the seduction of a body, but about the seduction of a mind.”
The film exemplifies Alea’s consistent attempts to criticise and improve his society through film, demonstrating once again that the personal and political are indivisible, as David’s Marxist dogma melts in the face of Diego’s wit and charm.
Perhaps no one summed this up better than Titon himself, as Mirtha Ibarra recalls him saying: “there is a danger in the Revolution of converting symbols into empty phrases. Therefore I am against that: I am against raised arms, against circles of Martí worship, against banners, against posters, against signs, against the moment when everything turns into sodden paper.”