Tomás Gutiérrez Alea and the Post-Revolutionary Cuba
"Cuban cinema is synonymous with the Cuban Revolution." -Michael Chanan-
Fidel Castro's revolution is considered integral and instrumental in the evolution of Cuban cinema, but it would be a great disservice to the Cuban film industry to regard 1959 as a turning point without significant precedents. In fact, cinema has played an important role in Cuban life ever since the turn of the century.(1) The first truly Cuban films were El brujo desaparecido, shot by José E. Casasus in 1905, and La Habana en agosto and El parque de Palatino, both filmed by Enrique Díaz Quesada in 1906. Both of these pioneers were financially dependent on business concerns, Casasus on a beer merchant and Díaz Quesada on an amusement park company. This commercial hold on early cinematic activity was to be one of the dominant characteristics of Cuban cinema for the next five decades; as Anthony Slide describes it, until 1959 Cuban cinema was marked by "--- the exploitation of the Cuban market by foreign concerns, the cinematic interpretation of Cuban sociopolitical life by foreigners for their own interests, and the commercialization of all aspects of national production."(2) Throughout the silent period the Cuban cinema market, at the time the most profitable in Latin America, was controlled initially by European firms and, after the First World War, by North American ones. The era of sound further limited the development of Cuban cinema; swamped by Hollywood productions, Mexican rancheras, and Argentinian gaucho and tango films, Cuban productions were virtually limited to releases that highlighted the touristy aspects of the country.
All in all, there was little steady feature film production in Cuba, the commercially most successful figure in the Cuban film industry of the forties and fifties being one Manuel Alonso, who produced news reels and social reports with enduring success for almost two decades. Nonetheless, the general public's interest in cinema was enough to gradually evolve into an interest in promoting the development of a Cuban cinema culture. Of the numerous cultural organizations that were created to this end, the Sociedad Cultural Nuestro Tiempo was the most political. In 1954, two members of Nuestro Tiempo, Tomás Gutiérrez Alea and Julio García Espinosa, recently returned from a two-year course in film-making at the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia in Rome, collaborated to produce El Mégano/The Charcoal Worker, a documentary-style mid-length feature denouncing the harsh conditions endured by the charcoal burners of southern Havana. It was never commercially exhibited, having been confiscated by the Batista government after its first screening at the University of Havana: accordingly, El Mégano is considered the first precursor of the revolutionary cinema, and all those who collaborated in its production (Gutiérrez Alea, García Espinosa, Alfredo Guevara, Jorge Haydu and Jorge Fraga) would go on to make up the central core of the ICAIC.(3)
Italian Neorealism a la cubana
The new cinema that the ICAIC promoted was greatly influenced by the experiences of Gutiérrez Alea and García Espinosa at Rome's Centro Sperimentale; the inspiration of Italian neorealism came from the desire to expose the true face of the nation from behind the façade of development, to create the 'cinema of the humble' and discover on film the Italy of underdevelopment. Needless to say, these were themes and ideals easily taken up by film-makers in underdeveloped countries elsewhere, and in the case of Cuba, it was the ICAIC which was to concentrate its efforts to produce cinema with a social (and socialist) content. The obstacles which the makers of El Mégano had faced, the censorship and the forced clandestinity, had convinced them of the need for a multiclass government where leftists could participate along with the bourgeoisie, and neorealism seemed the natural and most appropriate direction for Cuban cinema, as it was "a humanist and progressive aesthetic that offered a real alternative to the dominant modes of Hollywood and Latin American commercial production."(4) Also, the great pedagogical potential of cinema was obvious to the members of ICAIC, and it was generally held that documentaries and essayistic short films were a powerful cinematic form, both wide-ranging in appeal and endowed with the advantage of being relatively inexpensive to produce.
Neorealism and documentary production Already in 1959, Che Guevara placed García Espinosa in charge of producing two films for the Dirección de Cultura (Cultural Directorate) of the Rebel Army: one of them, La vivienda/Housing, dealt with urban reform, and the second, Esta tierra nuestra/This Land of Ours, which García Espinosa scripted and Gutiérrez Alea directed, was aimed at explaining the legislation of the Agrarian Reform to Cubans, but ended up having far wider effects. The Agrarian Reform was the first piece of legislation to allow the expropriation of North American property, and the reception of the revolutionary legislation (as well as that of the views promulgated in Esta tierra nuestra) was predictably a turning point in U.S. - Cuba relations. On the other hand, both Esta tierra nuestra and La vivienda won international distinctions the following year, as did Gutiérrez Alea's Asamblea general/General Assembly, which recorded the meeting of September 2nd, 1960, at which the Declaration of Havana was proclaimed.(5) By the end of 1959, ICAIC had begun regular documentary production and had completed four films. In 1960, ICAIC made its first feature films, of which the first to be shown (though it was the second to be completed) was Gutiérrez Alea's Historias de la revolución/Stories of the Revolution. The film consists of three episodes which, according to Eduardo Heras León, allow the audience to identify with three key moments of the Revolution: the first episode, El Herido/'The Wounded Man', evokes the assault on the Presidential Palace mounted by the urban revolutionary group Directorio Revolucionario on March 13th, 1957; the second episode, Rebeldes/'Rebels', the struggle of the guerrillas in the sierra; and the final episode, entitled La batalla de Santa Clara/'The Battle of Santa Clara', the final battle for liberation.(6) Although the film elicited much the same kind of audience response as any conventional war movie, it owed much of its success to the fact that it dealt with a war its audience was intimately and immediately a part of; in short, it told a recent story of Cuban warfare. And although Historias de la revolución was a war movie, it was as un-Hollywood as its makers could manage. Its influences are identifiably taken from Italian neorealism; the episodic form, the use of amateur actors, and the use of real locations. ICAIC's neorealist phase was a short-lived one. Gutiérrez Alea's Cumbite from 1964 was ICAIC's last neorealist film, but it was also visually the most striking: it is starkly black-and-white, there is no background music, and the narrative unfolds in a slow, deliberate pace. Cumbite is a neorealist representation of a historical period, a fictional film based on Jacques Romain's novel Les Gouverneurs de la Rosée, which tells the story of a Haitian boy's return to his homeland after fifteen years in Cuba. Although the film itself was criticized for its extreme sobriety and lack of intensity, Gutiérrez Alea's talents did not go unnoticed. As Michael Chanan describes, "- - - the film has its own integrity, and a sense of authenticity which is guaranteed - - - by the way the camera watches [Cuban Haitian] ceremonies - - - with considerable fluidity. It is this fluidity with the camera that is to become one of Alea's distinctive capacities as a director and an important stylistic trend in Cuban cinema."(7) For all intents and purposes, Cumbite marked the end of the neorealist phase in Cuban cinema. The reason Italian neorealism was so readily taken up by Cuban film-makers was its adaptability to Cuban conditions. As Gutiérrez Alea explains, "All we had to do was to set up a camera in the street and we were able to capture a reality that was spectacular in and of itself."(8) But unlike its Italian counterpart, Cuban neorealism did not attempt to expose deprivation or official indifference for the very simple reason that its government was, in fact, a revolutionary one. Although Cuban filmmakers had taken much from the Italian neorealist aesthetic, they had incorporated it with distinctly Cuban themes. It was the rapid pace of the Revolution which eventually moved Cuba beyond neorealism; as revolutionary Marxism become increasingly established as the prevalent theoretical approach in Cuba, it made its way into the realm of cinema as well.
The influence of French New Wave cinema and Free Cinema
Even filmmakers like Gutiérrez Alea and García Espinosa who had worked for the overthrow of the Batista government since the times of El Mégano were surprised by the rapid radicalization of the Revolution. Suddenly it became apparent that neorealism was an inadequate cinematic tool for depicting the speed and depth of the revolutionary change sweeping through Cuba; what was not so apparent was which genre or cinematic style would be adequate. Some Cuban film-makers flirted with the French New Wave, an aesthetically nonconformist and readily iconoclast cinema of protest which, like neorealism before it, was conveniently inexpensive. Gutiérrez Alea's contribution to the new movement was, interestingly enough, to play the part of a psychiatrist in Sergio Giral's La Jaula/'The Cage' (1964). But the tradition of the Cuban documentary was also alive and well, and about to experience a revitalization. By chance, the Cuban Revolution coincided with a period of aesthetic revolution in the realm of documentary cinema, both in terms of technical advances and new artistic and aesthetic genres. A new documentary movement, the Free Cinema, whose approach to cinema (like that of many French New Wave directors and some of the Cubans too) came through film criticism. Free Cinema films were stylistically quite diverse, but had in common what Michael Chanan describes as an attitude of humanist commitment and a sense of artistic responsibility. In Cuba too, Free Cinema was regarded an important idea worthy of discussion and debate, and in an article in Cine Cubano at the end of 1960, Gutiérrez Alea brought forth his reservations against the new documentary style. Essentially he argued against accepting Free Cinema (which had been translated into Spanish as cine espontáneo) uncritically. Although it was a way of doing away with the obstacles to free expression caused by the commercial institution of cinema, Gutiérrez Alea argued it was not the only one. Unlike the Free Cinema film-makers, who emphasized the importance of the fulfillment of an individual director's personal artistic aspirations, he held a film-maker's sensitivity to the audience to be more important than the achievement of technical mastery, since without this sensitivity, no amount of technical mastery alone was meaningful. Gutiérrez Alea concluded his article by stressing that one should not consider Free Cinema as the new cinema, but as one step in a particular direction, valuable but wrought with dangers. In fact, by the time Gutiérrez Alea wrote his article, Free Cinema was already all but defunct and about to be replaced by its rather natural successor, cinéma vérité. Cinéma vérité, or direct cinema, had something in common with the approaches taken by Cuban documentarists, namely the desire to distance and free documentaries from the conventions of commercial films. It was felt that such conventions - for example, misplaced and insistent background music or a paternalistic tone in the commentary - would distract from the cinematic truths otherwise discernible in the documented material. But as with Free Cinema, Cuban documentarists were no purists with cinéma vérité either, feeling they had good reasons for rejecting the style in its most dogmatic and extreme versions. This was undoubtedly due to the unparalleled success of the Cuban documentary film; as Michael Chanan notes, by the end of the sixties feature-length documentaries had become regular fare in Cuban cinemas.(9) In fact, the ICAIC found the insights of socialist film-maker Joris Ivens to be of greater cinematic value than cinéma vérité. Thanks in part to Ivens's presence and cinematic knowledge, ICAIC documentary production expanded rapidly, from four films in 1959 to forty in 1965.(10)
Experimentalism: Memorias del Subdesarrollo and La Muerte de un Burócrata
The richest years in Cuban feature film production, 1966 to 1979, are characterized by a plurality of approaches and an experimental spirit. In this initial period, ICAIC filmmakers enjoyed a relative autonomy within the Cuban political sphere not known to other cultural workers: directors, while openly committed to the Revolution and supportive of its ideals, did not avoid politically sensitive topics and were not artistically compromised by the demands of social realism. From this intial period is Tomás Gutiérrez Alea's Memorias del subdesarrollo/Memories of Underdevelopment (1968), a film "widely regarded as the best Latin America has produced."(11) Currents already visible in the Cuban documentary, as well as Cuba's first fully accomplished experimentalist feature film, García Espinosa's Las aventuras de Juan Quin Quin/'The Adventures of Juan Quin Quin' (1967) both anticipated a series of major Cuban fiction films from 1968 and 1969, among them which figured prominently Memorias del Subdesarrollo. Based on a novel by Edmundo Desnoes, it is a film about a frustrated and unfulfilled writer, an anti-hero unable to enter the new reality which the Revolution has created for him, the new Cuban artistic and intellectual atmosphere. It is also, on a larger scale, about the identity crisis created in an artist by an ideological rupture with the past, the artist being a sort of personification of a larger social conscience. Interestingly, Gutiérrez Alea puts in a cameo apperance as a documentary director, as does the author of Memorias del subdesarrollo, Edmundo Desnoes, as a panelist at a literary gathering. Although due to receive a special prize for the film from the U.S. National Society of Film Critics in 1973, Gutiérrez Alea was denied a visa to attend the ceremony. When the film was eventually able to open commercially in New York, it was selected by the New York Times in 1974 as one of the year's ten best movies.(12) Ironically, in Cuba itself, the film proved to be too stylistically difficult for much of the audience to relate to. Nonetheless, from Memorias del subdesarrollo on, a number of Cuban films began utilizing the aesthetically powerful effect of interlacing fiction and documentary in an experimental way. Michael Chanan has singled out four ICAIC feature films from the years 1966 and 1967 as being significant; one of these is Gutiérrez Alea's La muerte de un burócrata/'The Death of a Bureaucrat' (1966). It is a black-and-white, full-length comedy about a country which has undergone a socialist revolution and now insists its bureaucrats provide equal treatment for all, including the dead. The newly socialist country is a thinly veiled Cuba, and the comedic twists and characters reminiscent of Hollywood comedy traditions and stars such as Charles Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, Buster Keaton and even Marilyn Monroe; also included is a touch of surrealism and black humor reminiscent of Buñuel. According to Gutiérrez Alea himself, the film is also " - - - a satire on rhetoric and the stereotype in art."(13) La muerte de un burócrata was as much a popular as well as a critical success, establishing Gutiérrez Alea's name abroad when it took the Special Jury Prize, albeit shared with Jean-Paul Rappenneau's La Vie de crateau, at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival in Czechoslovakia.
Historical themes in the abscence of political inspiration
Towards the late seventies Cuban cinema began to prefer historical themes to contemporary political ones. This was understandable, as the Cuban economy was becoming increasingly troubled and underdevelopment was nowhere close to being reduced; history seemed a safe and romantic source of film inspiration. A popular cinematic genre dealt with the issue of Cuban slavery, the most notable films in this genre being Sergio Giral's El otro Francisco/The Other Francisco (1975), on which Gutiérrez Alea and García Espinosa collaborated with the director and scriptwriter, and Gutiérrez Alea's La última cena/The Last Supper (1977). Another historical film of this period, Gutiérrez Alea's Una pelea cubana contra los demonios/'A Cuban Struggle Against the Demons' (1971), was the furthest back Cuban cinema went to create a historical reconstruction. It takes place at the time of the Spanish Inquisition of the mid-seventeenth century and is based on a book of the same name by cultural anthropologist Fenando Ortiz. Michael Chanan describes its narrative style as defying categorization, and as with Memorias del subdesarrollo, Gutiérrez Alea again refuses the audience the chance to identify with a positive hero. As Chanan describes it, "(t)he film's extraordinary visual fluidity, together with its striking black-and-white photography - - - turns [it] into a corrective interpretation of history, a study of the social and economic forces of seventeenth-century Cuba."(14) Like El otro Francisco, on which he collaborated, La última cena is also a slavery film set at the end of the eighteenth century. It is described as a satire about hypocrisy and a celebration of the Afro-Cuban legacy, " - - - undoubtedly the other masterpiece [along with Memorias del subdesarrollo] of Alea's."(15) It is a subtly ironic allegory of the religious hypocrisy of plantation owners, a film where the image of the slave is powerfully deconstructed. Like the other historical slavery films of the seventies, La última cena also was influenced by the Calibán theme, or the complete opposition of master and slave, colonizer and colonized, which was derived from Cuban poet Roberto Fernández Retamar's 1971 essay on Cuban revolutionary aesthetics, entitled 'Caliban'. Caliban was the name of the half-man half-fish in Shakespeare's last play, The Tempest, thought by many Caribbean scholars to be an anagram for 'canibal', whose etymology comes from carib, Caribbean. The Calibán theme was of particular interest in the Latin America of the seventies, where it was seen as symbolic of colonialism and enslavement.(16) A transformation of cinematic themes As the seventies gave way to the eighties, a new tendency among Cuban filmmakers was to shift away from experimental productions back to the traditional, unbroken narrative line and Hollywood-style conventionality. Stylistic and visual experimentation, and ambitious attempts to deal with problematic sociopolitical issues became the exception rather than the norm, as popular comedies and safe topics gained wide appeal. However, under Julio García Espinosa's direction, ICAIC adopted a strategy of diversification, aimed at providing minimal financing for a maximum number of films. A consequent increase in the number of films produced annually facilitated the reappearance of a wider variety of feature films, including critical works such as Jesús Díaz's Lejanía (1985) and Gutiérrez Alea's Hasta cierto punto/Up to a Certain Point (1983). With Hasta cierto punto, Gutiérrez Alea turns his ironic magnifying glass onto himself, examining the pretensions and contradictions of Cuban film-makers. As Catherine Davies writes, "[in] Gutiérrez Alea's Hasta cierto punto a happily married scriptwriter Oscar - - - is working on a film about Cuban machismo which he believes is endemic among dockers. Hasta cierto punto contains footage of his documentary, which is, in fact, part of Gutiérrez Alea´s own documentary made before the film."(17) As it turns out, Oscar, who is clearly a representation of Gutiérrez Alea, proves to be as sexist as the men in his documentary, leading some critics to interpret Oscar's dilemma as a dilemma that is endemic to Cuban men, the inability to deal with the theme of their own machismo. Interestingly, the play Oscar has written in the film was a real play written by Juan Carlos Tabío, which was later made into a successful film, Se permuta/'Exchange Wanted' in 1983. But critical films like these were clearly more of an exception than the rule. Already in the late seventies, many Cuban directors had worked with a new brand of genre cinema: movies about good-guy revolutionaries fighting bad-guy counter-revolutionaries that ostensibly dealt with the thematics of the Revolution, but were for all intents and purposes macho action movies. Towards the eighties, this form of popular entertainment was superseded by the social comedy. In Cartas del parque/Letters From the Park (1988), based on a story by Gabriel García Márquez, Gutiérrez Alea shows another side of his personality; the film is a curious romantic period piece set in the provincial town of Matanzas in the early years of the century, a love story conspicuously free of political overtones. But Cartas del Parque was by no means to be Gutiérrez Alea's last political commentary: the first Cuban film to deal honestly and openly with themes such as homosexuality and prostitution, Gutiérrez Alea's Fresa y chocolate/Strawberry and Chocolate (1993) gained both national and international recognition, including a nomination for an Academy Award for best foreign-language film in 1995.
It would be no great exaggeration to say that the evolution of Cuban
cinema under the ICAIC has been, until his death last year in Havana, part
and parcel of the evolution of director Tomás Gutiérrez Alea.
As Michael Chanan has said, "Tomás Gutiérrez Alea's reputation
as Cuba's leading director is inseparable from the story of the Cuban Revolution
and the revolutionary cinema organization, ICAIC - - -set up at the time
of the Revolution in 1959, of which he was a founder member."(18)
The phases of Cuban cinema, from cinéma vérité to
experimentalism, and from neorealist drama to social comedy, have been
the phases of Gutiérrez Alea's directorial career. His last complete
feature film was to be Fresa y chocolate, of which Chanan writes:
" - - - [c]ritics who suggested that Cuba's political crisis had silenced
even Alea's critical spirit stand corrected by Fresa y chocolate - - -
in which the story of a friendship between a gay photographer and member
of the Communist Youth becomes a powerful and outspoken critique of political
dogma and intolerance, the work of a film-maker at the height of his powers."(19)
Because Gutiérrez Alea became ill during the filming of Fresa
y chocolate, he was assisted by his colleague, Juan Carlos Tabío.
It was Tabío who also worked with Gutiérrez Alea on his last
film, Guantanamera, a satire about bureaucracy, one of the director's
favorite subjects. On his death, the New York Times described Tomás
Gutiérrez Alea to be generally regarded as Cuba's foremost director.
In an interview given shortly before his death, when asked to explain his
position regarding the Cuban government, Gutiérrez Alea had denied
being a political dissident, and his New York Times obituary read: "- -
- criticism was his obligation. He regarded himself as 'a man who makes
criticism inside the revolution, who wants to ameliorate the process, to
perfect it, but not to destroy it.'"(20)
Agramonte, Arturo. Cronología del Cine Cubano. La Habana, Cuba: Ediciones ICAIC, 1966.
Chanan, Michael. "New Cinemas in Latin America." The Oxford History of World Cinema. Ed. Geoffrey Nowell-Smith. New York: Oxford U P, 1996
Chanan, Michael. The Cuban Image: Cinema and Cultural Politics In Cuba. London: BFI Books, 1985.
Davies, Catherine. "Recent Cuban Fiction Films: Identification, Interpretation, Disorder." Bulletin of Latin American Research Vol. 15 No. 2 (1996) : 177-192.
Evora, José Antonio. "Poesía y dramaturgia en de Tomás Gutiérrez Alea." [sic] Cine Cubano 137 (1993) : 30-33.
Gutiérrez Alea, Tomás. "El verdadero rostro de Calibán." Cine Cubano 126 (1989) : 12-22.
LatinoLink News. At http://www.latino.com/news/0416obit.html
Passek, Jean-Loup. Dictionnaire du Cinéma. Paris: Larousse, 1995 : 308-9.
Slide, Anthony. The International Film Industry: A Historical Dictionary. New York: Greenwood Press, 1989.