Enduring Memories: The Cuban Master Film-Maker Tomas Gutierrez Alea Trod a Fine Line, Supporting the Revolution but Insisting That but Insisting That Artists Should Maintain Their Distance from Those in Power

By Chanan, Michael | New Statesman (1996), July 7, 2008 | Go to article overview

Enduring Memories: The Cuban Master Film-Maker Tomas Gutierrez Alea Trod a Fine Line, Supporting the Revolution but Insisting That but Insisting That Artists Should Maintain Their Distance from Those in Power


Chanan, Michael, New Statesman (1996)


By the time the Cuban director Tomas Gutierrez Alea died in 1996 he was widely regarded, at home and abroad, as the doyen of Cuban cineastas, and over the next few years several Cuban film-makers, established figures and newcomers alike, dedicated new films to his memory. For some, he had been a personal mentor. For all of them he was a role model, for his commitment to the revolution's ideals, combined with his criticism of its failures.

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His penultimate film, Strawberry and Chocolate (1994), was the first Cuban picture with a gay character as its central protagonist, and the first to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign-Language Film, but his international reputation dates back to the appearance in 1968 of Memories of Underdevelopment, which was widely greeted as a brilliant contribution from an unexpected source to the "new wave" cinema of the day.

Memories is a very odd film to have come out of a third-world revolution in that famous year, for the protagonist, Sergio--beautifully portrayed by Sergio Corrieri, who died in February this year--is not a revolutionary, but a bourgeois misfit. It is also a film free of political rhetoric, which offers instead an astute commentary on the Cuban Revolution's contradictions. This, however, is criticism from within and from the left, and not, as supposed by some influential critics abroad, that of a Soviet-style dissident. Whatever they thought, the American critics loved the film and gave it an award. But when Alea--who was not a member of the Communist Party--was invited to New York to receive it in 1974, Washington refused him a visa because it considered him an apologist for Fidel Castro.

The truth is rather different. Alea was a loyal supporter who made awkward noises about the problems and dangers of power, from which the artist, he thought, should maintain his or her distance. There is a scene in Memories where an irreverent remark by Sergio is juxtaposed with an image of Fidel. In fact, there are several such moments in various of his films. In a touching memoir recently published in Spain by Mirtha Ibarra--Alea's wife and the female lead in his last few pictures--she tells us that he always resisted the suggestions sometimes made by the ICAIC, the Cuban national film institute that employed him, and of which he was a founding member, that such things were best avoided. He refused to cut them out, in effect insisting on the right to final cut. Memories was a film that made people nervous, but it was released without further demur when it met with the approval of the then president of Cuba, Osvaldo Dorticos. And then Alea discovered that, among the public the film was made for, ordinary cinema-goers were so intrigued that they were going back to see it a second or even a third time.

Memories was Alea's fifth feature film and confirmed him as the foremost director at Cuba's new film institute, which had been set up immediately after the revolution by Castro's friend Alfredo Guevara. Guevara was a communist who had worked in Mexico as an associate producer for Luis Bunuel. He defended cinema as art, against the orthodox communist line, which thought of it primarily in terms of propaganda, and used his friendship with Castro to ensure the institute's autonomy from external censorship. It probably would have been difficult to get Memories made otherwise, but here it was par for the course. The result of the institute's independence was that 1960s Cuba produced a stream of highly inventive films, very low-budget and extremely agile, as the excitement of the revolution stimulated film-makers' imaginations.

In the early 1950s, Alea trained in Rome at the Centro Sperimentale, and there imbibed the spirit of neorealism and the principle of direct and unadorned encounter with everyday reality. By the time of Memories, he had worked neorealism through and put behind him a couple of social comedies, and was anxious to find another way of getting at reality. …

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