Humberto Solás , who has died from cancer aged 66, was the enfant terrible of Cuban cinema in the 1960s – a time when Cuba was the enfant terrible of world cinema – achieving international success in 1968 with his first feature film, Lucía, at the age of 27.
Born in Havana, he was 14 when he joined the urban underground movement struggling against the dictator Fulgencio Batista in support of Fidel Castro's rural guerrillas. In 1960, the year after the revolution, having graduated in history from the University of Havana, he joined a new film institute, the ICAIC, and made his first short.
The last of his apprentice works, the 40-minute Manuela (1966), was intended as part of a three-episode film but was released on its own. It was a romanticised but neorealist tale of a campesina, a young peasant woman who demonstrates that the qualities needed to be a rebel soldier are not exclusively male. She is the first of a stream of leading female protagonists that feature in several of Solás's most impressive films, beginning two years later with Lucía.
Lucía was a tour de force: three episodes in three different cinematic styles about three women, each called Lucía, set during three different moments in Cuba's history. Lucía 1895 is shot in a histrionic style, influenced by the Italian director Luchino Visconti, replete with the extraordinary image of naked black liberation fighters riding out to meet the Spanish cavalry. Lucía 1933 turns to Hollywood models and adopts the more sedate style of domestic melodrama by Cukor or Kazan, while Lucía 196? takes on the hue of the nouvelle vague
His next feature, Un dia de noviembre (A November day) was made in 1972 during what the Cuban writer Ambrosio Fornet has dubbed "the five grey years", when sectarians held the reins of cultural power. However, the ICAIC declined to release it for several years, and it was not a success.
Solás then returned to a historic theme for Cantata de Chile in 1976. This was a musico-dramatic tapestry, composed by Leo Brouwer, which paid homage to victims of the Chilean coup of 1973 by re-enacting the dockers' strike and subsequent massacre at the port of Iquique in northern Chile in 1907.
In between these feature films, Solás continued to make more modest documentaries, including the exquisite dance film, Simparelé (1974), and a study of the great Cuban surrealist painter Wifredo Lam (1979) – films in which he affirms his identity as a very Cuban artist.
However, trouble befell the epic Cecilia in 1981, a film fated to provoke a crisis in the ICAIC. Taken from the most popular of 19th-century Cuban novels, which celebrated the figure of the mulata (a woman of mixed race), Solás gave it a sumptuous but free and dark adaptation which disconcerted both traditionalists and the popular audience, and the film was massacred by the critics.
It was the most expensive production the ICAIC had ever undertaken, but in part the film suffered from the co-production arrangements needed to finance it, which called for three different versions: a six-hour serialisation for Spanish television, a four-hour version for Cuban cinema release, and a shorter version for international release. It is difficult for a film to retain its identity in such circumstances. Worse still, it overran its shooting schedule by many months, throwing everybody else's production plans into disarray, causing considerable chagrin among other film-makers. The attack on the film proved fatal, not for Solás, but for the ICAIC's founder and president, Alfredo Guevara. When Cecilia flopped, despite European co-production funding and its quality feel, disarray at the film institute enabled Guevara's old enemies to edge him out of power.
The institute's new president, the film-maker Julio García Espinosa, immediately put Solás to work on his next film. This was Amada (1983), a low-budget love story with political undertones set at the time of the first world war, written and co-directed by the doyen of Cuban film editors, Nelson Rodríguez.
With Un hombre de Éxito (A Successful Man, 1986), he told a tale of opportunism and corruption in pre-revolutionary Cuba, made on a very modest budget for which his habitual cinematographer, Livio Delgado, nevertheless contrived an opulent mise-en-scène
But then in 1991 came another super-production, made for French television, an adaptation of Alejo Carpentier's great historical novel, El siglo de las luces (Explosion in a Cathedral). A film no less ambitious than Cecilia, it was likewise an international co-production made for television, and suffered some of the same consequences, although it worked brilliantly as a television drama series. Solás called this tale of the French revolution his "political testament". Behind the historical imagery is a critique of revolutionary power which can be read as an allegory on the present day, though none of this was mentioned by the critics. It was not an international success but was much admired in Cuba. This is not to say that Solás had changed his political stripes. A man of fierce intelligence – and a wonderful conversationalist – he remained staunchly loyal to both the film institute and to his country.
However, as Cuba was overwhelmed by economic crisis following the collapse of communism in eastern Europe, in cinematic terms Solás completely changed tack, moving into digital film-making. With the ICAIC thrown into a funding crisis, he shot Miel para Oshún (Honey for Oshún, 2001) and other late films on DVD. He supported "no-budget" cinema, or rather, cine pobre (cinema of poverty), reviving a term used across Latin America in the 1960s to describe the radical cinema of the day.
In 2003 he set up an international festival of cine pobre at Gibara on Cuba's north-east coast, where in 1967 he had found colonial streets for a scene in Lucía, and where he returned to film some scenes for Miel para Oshún. In five short years, the event has become a magnet for a widespread movement spawned by digital video. It has also expanded into a lively and diverse arts festival.
Solás is survived by his sister.
· Humberto Solás, film-maker, born December 4 1941; died September 17 2008