A new five-disc set from First Run Features, capitalizing on current events in Cuba, offers exiles a whiff of the culture they left behind and gringos a needed lesson in Cuban aesthetics. Defying notions of the island nation’s disconnect from the world, Julia García Espinosa’s 1967 film The Adventures of Juan Quin Quin confirms that Cuban filmmakers have never starved for the rewards of international cinema. The film’s title brings to mind Rin Tin Tin, or the rapscallion Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, but its playful brinkmanship suggests the influence of Fellini and Leone. The story begins as a western in the wildest fields of Cuba, with García Espinosa collaging the country’s physical detachment from the world and contrasting campesino aggression with military willpower, only to transform into a self-referential comic caper about an everyman insistent on controlling his own fate and that of the girl of his dreams.
García Espinosa is not as well regarded as his former colleague Tomás Gutiérrez Alea. The films of both men exhibit great intellectual sophistication but Gutiérrez Alea walked a braver and fiercer political line. His 1962 film The Twelve Chairs assimilates the Cuban political climate of its time to the machinations of a 1928 novel by Ilya Ilf and Yevgeni Petrov, which Mel Brooks also adapted for the screen. Anticipating Gutiérrez Alea’s more popularly known but inferior Death of a Bureaucrat, the film critiques the desperate bourgie powers leftover from Batista’s regime but also disguises a sly critique of Castro’s revolution. Greed affects everyone in this Helleresque burlesque about a man and a hired hand who attempt to retrieve the jewels a dead woman hid inside a dozen English chairs. Like The Adventures of Juan Quin Quin, it paints a vivid metaphorical picture of a modern Cuba in difficult political and cultural transition (or is it regression?) except its undercurrent of gallows humor is notable for cutting more than one way.
Among Cuban directors, Humberto Solás is perhaps second only to Gutiérrez Alea, but the queerness of Solás’s work is unmatched. After the success of his famous two-hour-plus masterpiece Lucia, the government’s anti-gay agenda would interfere with the integrity of his films, but this fiercely exquisite filmmaker remained committed to plumbing the depths of the national consciousness through the perspectives of the country’s women—past and present, young and old—even if was to varying degrees of success. Identity has never mattered more to a Cuban filmmaker, and though cineastes have a misconception of the country’s films as shabbily produced productions, Solás’s voluptuous historical productions blow this theory.
A Successful Man, from 1986, is the story of two brothers divided along ideological lines whose conflicts are set against a backdrop of nationalist turmoil, spanning from the early 1930s to the start of the revolution. With Solás’s earlier Cecilia, the film shares a good portion of its cast, a sumptuous production design, nervy sexual energy, and characters who toggle between opposing political principles for personal gain, but Solás’s direction feels desiccated and the jumps in time sacrifice nuance, leaving the film’s emotion feeling uncongealed. The opposite problem burdens Amada, the story of an upper-class woman’s love affair with her cousin in and around her luxe manse in the 1910s. Recalling Buñuel’s A Woman Without Love and De Sica’s brilliant The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, the film mourns for a dying class but its central melodrama is so obsessively overdetermined that the film is left dry-heaving for a burst of spontaneous energy.
Lucia is conspicuous by its absence from this DVD set, but then there is Ceclia. Seconds into this 1982 production, an adaptation of the mythic tale of the boundary-defying Cecilia Valdés (a symbol for Cuban identity whose saga has also been told in a ballet, a novel, and an operetta), Solás’s acknowledged debt to Visconti is already more than apparent. The story begins in the distant past, when the Spanish and their slaves have begun to engender Cuba’s mixed-blood populace, with the primitive image of a small slave army marching through a mountain valley that suggests the contours of a vagina. Its thesis fabulously birthed in this one sequence, the film flashes forward to the early 18th century as the mulatta Cecilia (Daisy Granados) contrives to win herself a white husband. Any one would appear to suffice, though she focuses her ambitions on Leonardo (Imanol Arias), the son of a slave-trader forced to marry a woman of his class when his father learns of his affections for Cecilia.
Cecilia‘s debt to The Damned, from its ornate mise-en-scène to the white makeup that cakes the faces of the film’s most decrepit characters (a conceit also borrowed by Fassbinder for Whity), is almost obscene, but the film’s sensualist energy is more consistently carried out. This brave vision of Cuba divided along racial lines and the nightmares—both literal and figurative—these rifts affect among whites, blacks, and mulattos makes Ceclia one of most important films in Cuban history, staking its claim 25 years after its original release as one of the great film discoveries of 2007.
Hit and miss. The Adventures of Juan Quin Quin suffers from all sorts of distress (combing is the worst of it), but its almost pristine compared to A Successful Man, which doesn't look as if it was even looked at after it made the obviously precarious transition from film to video. The Twelve Chairs fares best, and though blacks on Cecelia can be embarrassing (as is the occasional jumpiness), the film's sumptuous aesthetic will not be lost on anyone. Sound is serviceable throughout.
The supplemental materials available on these discs are of rare value. Because they were produced in Cuba and, thus, probably not intended for wide international distribution, some of the features sample scenes from films whose titles are not identified, meaning anyone with scant knowledge of Cuban cinema may be left wanting for context. Sharing space with The Adventures of Juan Quin Quin is Octavio Cortazar's short documentary Por Primera Vez, about campesinos being exposed to the cinema for the first time; featurettes on the unknowns of ICAIC and the current state of Cuban cinema accompany The Twelve Chairs; a sweet documentary on the cha-cha-cha appears alongside A Successful Man; and an incredible hour-long documentary on composer Leo Brouwer rubs shoulders with Amada; and a look at the women of Lucia, then and now, appears on the same disc with Ceclia. In addition, all discs include photo galleries and director bios for their respective films.
Not since the beginning of the revolution has Cuba been at such a precarious point in its history, and this vital five-disc set from First Run Features chronicles the struggles and passions leading up to this point.