As a complement to the exhibition Adiós Utopia: Dreams and Deceptions in Cuban Art Since 1950, the Walker Moving Image department has curated Cinema Revolution: Cuba, a series of four classic Cuban films by filmmakers who gained international recognition soon after the formation of Castro’s revolutionary ICAIC (the Instituto Cubano del Arte e Industria Cinematográficos). To spark conversation about their impact today, we invited six experts on Cuban film—Juan Antonio García Borrero, Michael Chanan, Gustavo Arcos Fernández-Britto, Oneyda González, Dean Luis Reyes, and Alejandro Veciana—to respond to the question: How is revolutionary Cuban Cinema still revolutionary today?
In their essays, presented when possible in both English and Spanish, they cover key considerations—including the innovations in form, technique, and style that are still admired or emulated today; the impact of these ’60s-era films on young people in Cuba today; its influence on today’s generation of artists; and the relevance of this work for audiences outside of Cuba. The series launches with a perspective from Brooklyn-based, Barcelona-born critic and filmmaker Alejandro Veciana.
Despite its trivialized international exposure, its underrated attention, and its limited distribution, Cuba’s revolutionary cinema is as exciting, exhilarating, and inventive as any celebrated national cinematic movement, from Brazil’s Cinema Novo to the French New Wave. And even though it is sad to see such a significant catalogue of films go unnoticed for so long, it also comes as great relief to finally see that Cuba’s cinema has been making the long overdue rounds at repertory programs in the US and abroad.
In 2015, for example, the UCLA Film & Television Archive partnered with the Cinemateca de Cuba, the nation’s official film archive, on an initiative to the preserve and revive Cuba’s pre-revolutionary cinema. And more recently, stunning 4K restorations were made of two of of Cuba’s most classic cinematic gems—Humberto Solás’s historical epic Lucía and Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s magnum opus Memories of Underdevelopment, both celebrating their 50th anniversary this year—by the Cineteca di Bologna at L’Immagine Ritrovata laboratory in association with the Instituto Cubano del Arte e Industria Cinematograficos (ICAIC). These two classics have been making comebacks in cinemas nationwide from New York’s Film Forum to the Walker Art Center and overseas, including a Cannes Classic screening of Lucía at last year’s Cannes Film Festival.
This spike in interest in Cuban cinema—post-revolution films in particular—presents a good moment to look at how these films carry the weight of Cuba’s history, with all its beauty, flaws, and contradictions. But beyond their historical context, it is important also to recognize these films as revolutionary in their own right, for their artistic boldness, their ideological complexity, and critical substance. That being said, it is virtually impossible to give an overview of Cuba’s revolutionary cinema without first considering its historical and political context. So many of these films deal with Cuba’s political history, and in fact, all of the films showcased at the Walker’s series focus in different ways on the immediate aftermath of the Cuban revolution. Furthermore, it is impossible to segregate these films from Cuba’s revolutionary government because the ICAIC, Cuba’s national film fund and production monopoly, was founded moments after the revolution triumphed on New Year’s Day 1959. Fidel Castro and Alfredo Guevara, the founding director of the ICAIC, both understood the role of cinema within the Communist context, both as mass influence and as a way of cultural decolonization. It would be wrong, however, to dismiss these films as mere propaganda tools as they often build on intricate and self-critical ideas that question both what it means to be revolutionary and what it means to be Cuban. More importantly, it is the filmmakers themselves—far more than the ICAIC directors and politicians—who proved to be true revolutionaries and employ that spirit in their work.
When Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, arguably Cuba’s most towering cinematic figure, made Memories of Underdevelopment in 1968, the revolution was still fresh in the country’s consciousness. Now, 50 years later, its legacy goes beyond that of a document and remains as a formally audacious piece of art, bold and ideologically layered. Based on Edmundo Desnoes’s novel and set sometime between 1961 and 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Memories centers on Sergio (played by Sergio Corrieri), a 38-year-old aspiring bourgeois writer who stays in Havana after his wife, parents, and friends flee to the US. He wanders around a transitioning city, bored, reflecting on politics and fantasizing about women. Sergio’s self-involved, daydreaming mannerisms can remind one of a Marcelo Mastroianni—balancing between innocence and devilish charm. There’s a certain boredom and passive detachment in Sergio’s presence; Alea allows him, and the audience by proxy, to step back and reflect upon himself and the Cuban political situation. Memories playfully mixes verité elements like newsreels and shots of average citizens with more constructed, stylized shots like, for instance, a beautiful sequence where the camera zooms so close to Sergio’s face the image becomes an abstraction.
It was with Memories that Alea was able to cement his status as one of Cuba’s most valuable cineastes. His antecedent to Memories, the hilarious Death of a Bureaucrat (1966), is a Kafkaesque comedy about a man who faces inexhaustible red tape after discovering his dead uncle was buried with his union card and his aunt cannot collect the pension. The film combines the absurdist slapstick of the Marx brothers with the witty and critical playfulness of a Jacques Tati, struggling to keep up with a world in flux. Considered to be the first classic post-revolution film, Death of a Bureaucrat may not employ as intricate ideas as Memories, but it certainly does not shy away from sharp critical reflection.
But Alea was not the only Cuban film maverick of his generation. Sara Gómez was just as pioneering a figure as Alea, even if her untimely death cut her career tragically short. Not only was she one of the first women to direct within the ICAIC, she was also the first Afro-Cuban to do so. Her first and only feature-length film, De Cierta Manera (1974), strikingly mixes documentary elements and fiction, fleshing out some weighty ideas on race, gender, and the systematic marginalization of the poor. In De Cierta Manera, Gómez clearly lays out, in an almost academic manner, historical facts that directly lead to some disenfranchisement of Cuba’s poorest citizens, tracing some of the country’s systematic injustices back to the island’s colonial history and slavery. Shooting on 16mm, and often handheld, Gómez was unconcerned with production value aesthetics; instead, she opts for a more raw, intimate representation of poor neighborhoods. This anti-elitist, more populist approach to filmmaking is something that filmmaker Julio García Espinosa would advocate for in his notorious 1969 manifesto, For an Imperfect Cinema. In 1974, Alea along with Espinosa stepped in to finish the project after Gómez’s premature death at age 31.
Like Gómez and Alea and any proper revolutionary filmmaker of the time, Humberto Solás was very interested in examining the country’s own history. His historical epic, Lucía spans three generations during nearly 70 years, and is divided into three parts, one in 1895, the second in 1932, and the third sometime in the then-present 1960s. All three characters are named Lucía, and all three embody three different generations of Cuban society and explore three genres and styles from melodrama to romance to comedy. Such interest in history is, of course, part of the greater revolutionary project—to understand one’s own national past in order to reclaim it. Cuban cinema is distinctly marked by Cuba’s desire to recover a national identity which has been historically coopted by centuries of colonial oppression.
Cuban cinema is revolutionary by its very own nature; these filmmakers’ political courage, their sense of beauty and creativity is partly indebted to the Cuban revolution, which allowed the conditions for such cinema to flourish. For now, Cuban cinema remains terribly underrated, but in light of recent resurfaced interest, perhaps soon the film community will justly revere Cuban revolutionary cinema in the same ranks as other national movements like Italian Neorealism or the Czech New Wave. And hopefully such exposure can then influence a new generation of filmmakers and artists who can preserve, in their own way, Cuba’s long revolutionary tradition.