Cuba si, Cuban cinema no

By DAVID DENBY  |  November 14, 2006

If The Other Francisco insists on correcting our views, it at least admits that alternate views were once possible; in the “documentaries” The Moncada Program (1973) and With the Cuban Women (1975) the triumph of the Revolution glares so brightly that all other possibilities have shrunk into a dark corner, nowhere to be seen. Like propaganda films the world over, they combine a barrage of statistics, tightly edited “interviews,” and an exhortatory narration to produce an ideal world of smiling faces, rising production, and domestic tranquility. The Moncada Program (the title refers to the revolutionary objectives Castro laid down after being arrested in 1953) is simply a long, boastful summing up (with many appreciative bows to the Soviet Union) of the Revolution’s many achievements. Indeed, the Cubans have a lot to boast about; even if we allow a certain exaggeration in the claims made for Cuban industry, employment, literacy, etc., the figures are still extremely impressive. It’s hard not to be convinced when farmers and workers say how much happier they are now than under Batista; it’s just that not one of the interviewees ever says anything else. Whether these banal, formulaic replies have been rehearsed or selected from a larger sample or are utterly sincere doesn’t really matter; one simply wants a little more complication, personality, anger – anything. The absence of normal human contrariness finally becomes frightening. “The Cuban people recognized the need to make sacrifices to develop the economy,” the narrator huffs at one point. One would like to hear something of those who refused to “recognize the need,” but of course one doesn’t.

With the Cuban Women, which documents the way women have entered the army, the professions, and the labor force (feminism seems to have been adopted as a state policy out of military and economic necessity), is also factually impressive in the same dull, over-insistent way. Certainly pre-Castro Cuba must have been a hellish place for women. Notoriously the whorehouse of the Caribbean, Cuba was a macho-obsessed Catholic culture in which females literally had no choices other than squalid “independence” or a dully respectable and sheltered marriage. Therefore, the sheer beaming happiness of these women running chemical plants or patrolling the beaches with machine guns is almost inspiring. I particularly admired a huge grinning mother (in both senses of the word) who manages a dairy farm and brings up 10 kids on the side. Her magnificent toothless smile while surveying her ragged domain was perfectly expressive of the more amiable side of the Cuban Revolution – the looseness, the raunchiness, the self-assured competence.

Nothing so pleasant can be found in The Man from Maisinicu (1974), a very solemn movie indeed. This awkwardly directed feature (the camera seems transfixed at middle distance on groups of men jabbering endlessly) celebrates the life and death of a double agent working for the secret police, a man who posed as a counter-revolutionary in order to gain the confidence of anti-Castroites terrorizing peasants in the Escambray mountains in the early ‘60s. Needless to say, the movie takes no notice of the fact that the Castroites had themselves been hiding in mountains only a few years before; once again, irony bites the dust. Indeed, with its stentorian narration and its glorification of secret-police work (a dirty business at best), this movie is bizarrely reminiscent of such FBI-worshipping American films as The House on 92nd Street. And if we now ridicule those blissfully authoritarian American films of the HUAC period, is there any reason we should admire Cuban works that take the same sanctimonious line?

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