Cuba si, Cuban cinema no

Judging from this festival at least
By DAVID DENBY  |  November 14, 2006

This article originally appeared in the September 28, 1976 issue of the Boston Phoenix.

Governments that take power through revolution love to inundate their citizens with films, but the films themselves don’t remain revolutionary for very long. The outstanding case, of course, is the Soviet cinema, which caused such a stir in its early days that people often forget how quickly the experimentation and achievement came to an end. The great period lasted less than a decade, from 1942 to about 1931, at which point the commissars and the dreary doctrine of “Socialist Realism” took hold and virtually destroyed the art of the Soviet film (with a few exceptions). The Czech renaissance, halted by the Soviet invasion of 1968, was even shorter – comprising a few years in the middle and late ‘60s.

The Cubans have also gone in for movies in a big way. ICAIC (the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry), set up in 1959 only a few months after Castro had taken power, has functioned for nearly 18 years as a state monopoly on all aspects of filmmaking, producing more than 50 features, some 100 educational shorts, and hundreds of politicized “newsreels” (i.e., propaganda). To insure political instruction (and some entertainment, too) for the entire population, ICAIC’s mobile film units – projection equipment hauled around on trucks, boats, mule teams – regularly bring the films to remote areas of the island.

It’s an heroic amount of film activity for such a small country. No one in this country can say how much of the material is any good (one suspects most of it isn’t), but at least we’ve been treated to two remarkable films from the Cuban Revolution: Memories of Underdevelopment (1968), Tomas Gutierrez Alea’s delicate and surprisingly sympathetic study of a languid bourgeois intellectual (a Cuban Oblomov) struggling to come to terms with the Revolution; and Humberto Solas’s erratic, flamboyant Lucia (1969), an examination of Cuban womanhood in three historical eras, each part filmed in a dramatically distinctive style.

There was a wonderful period of freedom in Cuban filmmaking in the middle and late ‘60s. But is it still possible for film artists to function in Cuba? Recently, there have been a number of ominous signs: the repeated rumors of stronger political control over filmmaking, the ideological stridency of recent Cuban films seen here, the reduced activity of such directors as Solas and Gutierrez Alea (in a fate all too reminiscent of Eisenstein’s, Gutierrez Alea has spent much of his recent time teaching young filmmakers rather than making films).

The Cuban Film Festival, which plays the Park Square from September 29 to October 12, and is being co-sponsored by the theater and FM station WBUR, is mainly a sad event. Lucia will be revived (October 6), but the rest of the material (I previewed about four-fifths of it) is narrowly didactic in a way that’s all too familiar. Memories of Underdevelopment was adored here for the marvelous flexibility of its ironies, but irony is an attitude that few Marxist revolutions can sustain for long; there can be only one, correct way of looking at things, and so the doubts and complexities that give a work of art something like the texture of experience are quickly dissolved by Marxist certitude.

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