In addition to reporting on Cuba's past and present from his very first movies, including Historias de la Revolucion, Cumbite and Las doce sillas, Alea dedicated himself to eliminating the borders between high culture and popular culture, between aesthetics and entertainment. He ended up creating a national cinematography which drew closer to the public without distancing itself from universal artistic paradigms or becoming alienated from the avant-garde trends of modern cinema such as Italian neo-realism and the new French wave.
Alea was constantly looking for an artistic reference that enabled him to express his own concerns. Shortly after making his second feature film, Las doce sillas, he gave a series of lectures on Austrian filmmaker Billy Wilder at the Center for Fine Arts. The influence of this foreign director -the best narrator and screenwriter of US cinema, director of Some Like It Hot and The Apartment- was evident in Alea's homage to slapstick comedy seen in the movie La muerte de un burocrata, which also has touches of black and Southern Italian humor.
In his movies Memorias del subdesarrollo, Los sobrevivientes, La ultima cena and Hasta cierto punto, Alea made fun of solemnity and ironically criticized hypocrisy, stagnation, passivity and prejudices, going beyond occasional and opportunist invectives to offer the vertical reflection of a filmmaker concerned about the future of his country, while portraying national history and traditions.
In Memorias del subdesarrollo (1968), inspired by the novel by Edmundo Desnoes, Alea combined documentary and fiction, intimate portrait and social narrative to tell us about the impact of the Cuban Revolution from the perspective of the psyche of a misfit. The movie confirms the two main topics of Alea's work: relations between power and the individual, and the themes of frustration and death interpreted primarily with a sarcastic and bizarre point of view, following the tradition of Cuban humor.
In La muerte de un burocrata and Memorias del subdesarrollo, Alea completely broke with neo-realism as he was never interested in reflecting reality, but in criticizing, exaggerating and deforming it to provoke the public. In the 1970s and 1980s, his films distanced themselves from contemporary life to dive into the origins of the nation or into the vices of the republican past. Una pelea cubana contra los demonios (1971), La ultima cena (1976) and Los sobrevivientes (1978) marked the peak of a metaphoric expression, tangentially referring to the problems of the present.
His research into the origins of the nation led him to contribute to the theatre play El otro Francisco, the first work of Sergio Giral, based on the first Cuban novel against slavery written by Anselmo Suarez y Romero in 1839. However, not satisfied with the analysis of the past -also evident in his short film El arte del tabaco-, Alea contributed to the screenplay and the ending of the feature film De cierta manera, which is an analysis of contemporary life, racial problems and the poorest sectors of society.
Following De cierta manera, Alea directed the controversial Hasta cierto punto (1983) and the retro, literary and romantic Cartas del parque (1988), inspired by a fragment from the popular novel El amor en los tiempos del colera, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Also inspired in the work of Garcia Marquez was the short Contigo en la distancia, filmed in Mexico in 1991.
In the 1990s, Gutierrez Alea continued his rationalist and pained poetic art with Fresa y chocolate (1993) and Guantanamera (1995), co-directed with his disciple Juan Carlos Tabio. These were his last two films. They both represent Alea's return to modern reflections, and to a critical and intellectual cinema, attractive to the public.
Tomas Gutierrez Alea was never interested in political propaganda or the elite. He was always in favor of intellectual autonomy and the virtues of knowledge. Fresa y chocolate represents, along with La muerte de un burocrata, Memorias del subdesarrollo, La ultima cena and Hasta cierto punto, a mural where Cuban people are portrayed exactly the way we are, without idealization or conformism. Such fantastic creations require culture, intellectual rigor, commitment to the future of the nation and the courage to take risks. Tomas Gutierrez Alea used all these qualities to exercise his trade of filmmaker, and all these qualities are indispensable, although some think that nowadays the only thing one needs to make a movie is a camera, three actors and a computer.
Joel del Río, Cuba. link to original article in Juventud Rebelde
To buy some of the films of Alea on DVD see www.cubaconnect.co.uk