July 12, 2009

50 Years of Revolution and Cuban Cinema

To mark the fiftieth anniversary of the revolution in Cuba that overthrew the Batista regime and propelled Fidel Castro into power, Mr Bongo Films has released a boxset of the best examples of post-revolutionary cinema, starting from ‘I Am Cuba’ (1964) and ‘Strawberry and Chocolate’ (1994). The boxset includes the best work of the most well known Cuban directors; Tomas Gutierrez Alea and Humberto Solas. Nicely coinciding with the release is a season of films at the Barbican Cinema, London, taking place between 3-9 July, which includes ‘Strawberry and Chocolate’ from this boxset and also a series of overlooked Cuban films. Both this season and this boxset covers a national cinema that has been neglected in the past, despite Latin American cinema generally receiving much critical interest, and showcases the vibrancy of the Cuban people and culture but also the legacy of revolution and the constant role of politics in the country.

Directed by Mikhail Kalatozov, whose ‘The Cranes Are Flying’ (1959) had been a Palme D’Or winner, ‘I Am Cuba’ is a joint Soviet-Cuban production; a love-letter if you like to the revolution. Filmed in documentary style, it’s a series of vignettes about the Batista regime that made revolution ultimately inevitable. As you’d imagine given the global political climate, the film embodies certain Cold War prejudices. The great evil influence upon the Batista regime is the United States. With Kalatozov’s typically melodramatic style, we see the United States exploit Cuba at every turn; businessmen “buy” Cuban women, whilst American corporations undermine Cuban agriculture. The victims are the simple Cuban people; let down by the Batista regime, to be rescued by Castro. It’s simple political propaganda designed to entrench support for the revolution, but it’s produced so masterfully and impressively that the bias can almost be overlooked. ‘I Am Cuba’ is also notable for the director’s demonstration of technical skill. There’s one elaborate and celebrated sequence that still evokes wide-eyed wonder today – the camera begins on a hotel rooftop observing a beauty pageant, then slinks down towards the swimming pool below, finishing underwater. Its reputation has grown in recent years thanks to the support of film makers like Martin Scorsese; justifiably so.

Lucia (1968), directed by Humberto Solas, is one of the first completely Cuban productions, and like ‘I Am Cuba’, it examines Cuba’s recent past to demonstrate perhaps how things have improved since revolution. It is a triptych film, divided into three historical periods; the 1890s, the 1930s and the 1960s. In each period, Solas considers the experiences of a single female character, Lucia. The first period feels influenced by Visconti’s ‘Senso’ – Lucia falls in love with a Spanish spy, Rafael, who reciprocates her affections purely to undermine the rebels. Rafael’s betrayals ultimately sends her made. The second period features a love triangle between Lucia and two lovers; Aldo, a revolutionary and Batista, who as we know, later betrays the revolution. In the final period, Lucia is a newly married woman in the countryside where reactionary attitudes to women hold sway. She is liberated and educated by a touring teacher. These are private stories with great political consequences. Solas pinpoints important periods in Cuba’s history; how it arrived at its destiny from decolonisation and how its people have been freed and specifically considers the role of women within society.

‘Memories of Underdevelopment’ (1968), directed by the most famous of all Cuban directors, Tomas Gutierrez Alea, is perhaps the most well known Cuban film internationally. In the immediate aftermath of revolution, much of the Cuban bourgeoisie departed for Miami, including the family of the film’s narrator and subject, Sergio, a jaded and uninspired writer, whose womanising eventually lands him in a spot of bother. Whilst his intellectual friends bemoan the decline of Cuba, Sergio remains impartial, ambivalent about his support for the revolution but recognising that under Batista, things were at breaking point. The underdevelopment of the title relates to Cuba and its people – it’s a political, cultural and personal phenomenon. Caught in the middle of Cold War politics, between the United States and the Soviet Union, Alea ends on an ominous note, with mobilisation because of the impending Cuban Missile Crisis. Perhaps the most radical, technically accomplished of all Cuban films, it’s reminiscent of what Glauber Rocha was doing in Brazil at the time; capturing the essence of a nation during political turbulence but completely rewriting the language of cinema in that country, revitalising it, shaking it from the inhibitions of the past.

Alea, in collaboration with Juan Carlos Tabio, directed perhaps the most well known Cuban film after the initial movement of film making in the 1960s, ‘Strawberry and Chocolate’. It’s notable for being the first Cuban film to seriously tackle the subject of homosexuality, which is admirable in itself given the past record of the Castro regime. Diego, the overtly gay intellectual who tries to seduce David, the fiery, pro-Castro student, isn’t a camp stereotype but a nicely well developed character who has found himself harassed and isolated because of his sexual orientation. What starts as a comic attempt at seduction becomes an exchange of political ideas, debating and challenging the exact philosophies upon which the Castro regime is based. Alea and Tabio avoid the sentimentality that the film could easily lapse into; it’s both a believable and moving relationship that develops between David and Diego and there’s a refreshing look at the past record towards homosexuals – Diego’s been in labour/re-education camps and still set in the period before homosexuality was finally decriminalised, it points to an uncertain future. It’s a brave film that tackles a taboo subject and was the first Cuban film to be nominated for an Academy Award and rounds off an impressive and important collection of films about post-revolutionary Cuba.

The 50 Years of the Cuban Revolution boxset is released on Mr Bongo Films on 13 July


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