The American government's blockade of Cuba may be intended to isolate the country, but in the sphere of culture, it hasn't quite worked, as forbidden fruit often becomes all the more tempting. Recent events suggest that Cuba remains an object of fascination for Americans all over the political spectrum. The story of Elián Gonzalez became myth so quickly that the Fox Family Channel offered its version only a few months after the boy's return to Cuba. Last year Wim Wenders's documentary The Buena Vista Social Club became a surprise hit in the United States, propelling its subject's 1997 album to sales of well over a million copies.
But "Cuba Si!," the three-film program that starts Sunday at U Film Society, offers a valuable opportunity to see how Cubans regard themselves without the presence of European or North American interlopers. Until his death four years ago, Tomás Gutiérrez Alea was Cuba's flagship filmmaker: Made in 1968, his Memories of Underdevelopment (screening Sunday at 5:15 p.m., Monday at 9:15 p.m., Tuesday at 7:15 p.m., and twice in November) was the first postrevolution Cuban film released in America. Yet one must see it, and Alea's Death of a Bureaucrat (Sunday and Monday at 7:15 p.m., and twice in November), as part of the "New Cinema" that sprang up all over the world--especially in Latin America and Eastern Europe--in the wake of the French New Wave. In Brazil and Cuba, especially, this movement was inextricably linked to the political upheavals of the 1960s, as well as to a determination to find a film language appropriate to the Third World rather than one borrowed from Hollywood.
In Death of a Bureaucrat (1966), a man (Salvador Wood) discovers that he needs his late uncle Paco's work card. Trying to get permission to exhume Paco's coffin in order to get the card, he faces a maddening tangle of red tape. The man decides to proceed with an illegal exhumation, and succeeds in getting the card out, but can't get the coffin buried again without an official form. This material could be played for Kafkaesque absurdism, but Alea takes a comic approach, paying overt homage to silent comedy's anarchic spirit. Rejecting naturalism, he includes proto-Monty Python-style animation: a sequence of stills and nightmares using deliberately overexposed film. At the same time, he critiques the clichés of socialist realism, pointing out its hypocrisy by showing the preparation for a symbolic "death of the bureaucrat" celebration at its hero's office, while the man himself can't make it to work because of real-life bureaucracy.
Both Death of a Bureaucrat and Memories of Underdevelopment surge with energy, linking political rebellion and formal innovation. The latter, which proved to be Alea's international breakthrough, chronicles the dilemma of Sergio (Sergio Corrieri), a 38-year-old man disillusioned with the revolution and frustrated by Cuban "underdevelopment" but unwilling to emigrate. As he says of himself, "I always try to live like a European"--and while he's well aware that his resulting inferiority complex is a symptom of colonialism, he can't help feeling it. His low self-esteem is a product of the very underdevelopment whose effects he complains about in other people, yet there's no easy way out of it.
Alea is careful to set Sergio's alienation in context. Shooting middle-class Havana with a glossy sheen reminiscent of Sixties-era Antonioni, he clearly contrasts this privileged world with the vibrant, multiracial street life going on around it. Memories of Underdevelopment also incorporates documentary footage to show the history of poverty and imperialism that led to the revolution, but it's difficult to know exactly how to take the didacticism of these segments. They're accompanied by a voiceover bluntly denouncing the bourgeoisie's complicity in violence, yet the rest of the film treats the echt-bourgeois Sergio, despite all his flaws, rather sympathetically. In fact, as critic Danny Peary has pointed out, conservative Americans may applaud Sergio's low opinion of postrevolutionary Cuba, and an unsympathetic spectator might suggest that Memories of Underdevelopment uses dialectics to have its cake and eat it too by allowing a wide range of spectators to read their own political views into it. But I think the film's reluctance to pass judgment is a point in its favor: Its defense of the revolution is a complex and humane one.
Turning from the sublime to the ridiculous: Rolando Diaz's dreadful would-be comedy from 1984, The Table Turned (Sunday and Tuesday at 9:15 p.m., and Wednesday, November 1 at 7:15 p.m.), ironically fleshes out "Cuba Si!" It explores a number of interesting issues (machismo, ageist sexual double standards) with an earnest heavy-handedness worthy of a Very Special Episode of a bad sitcom. The title refers to assumptions about sexuality: In this case, Emilito (Alberto Pujol), a young man on the verge of marriage, is shocked to discover that his mother, a 50-year-old widow, is dating his fiancée's father. The Table Turned makes lots of noise to little effect, settling for a facile, feel-good resolution in lieu of the serious probing of its themes.
These days, in addition to the Buena Vista Social Club, the late Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas seems to be reaping the benefits of American interest in his country. His final novel, The Color of Summer (completed just before his suicide in 1990), was published in English for the first time earlier this year; and painter Julian Schnabel's film Before Night Falls, adapted from Arenas's memoir, recently screened at the New York Film Festival and is due here in February. Alas, compared with Summer's savagely satirical synthesis of Genet and Rabelais, and its exaltation of the subversive potential of gay sexuality, Schnabel's movie is relatively tepid. When Alea turned his own attention to Cuban gay culture in Strawberry and Chocolate (1993), the results were timid and compromised. On the other hand, in both Before Night Falls and The Color of Summer, Arenas spoke eloquently from within about the alienation Alea had described and the political repression he hinted at.
Death of a Bureaucrat and Memories of Underdevelopment remain essential viewing, but it's a shame that Schnabel's version of Before Night Falls fails to capture the writer's fiery spirit. A faithful adaptation would be their countershot, so to speak.