From CubaCine on the 25th anniversary (16 April 2021) of the death of Cuban film director Alea, known in Cuba as Titon.
“For a long time, every time they asked me about my profession, I was ashamed to say that I was a film director, because they did not exist in our country. When I said it, many thought that I was directing or managing a cinema, and they asked me which one. Eventually, trying to avoid this confusion, I said that I was a filmmaker… ”
Tomás Gutiérrez Alea
Finding in cinema all the expressions of art that infected his artistic spirit, Tomás Gutiérrez Alea (Titón) became one of the most outstanding Cuban film directors of all time. Today we stop to remember his legacy as a cult filmmaker and a must-study filmmaker on the 25th anniversary of his death.
Nourished by Italian neorealism, after a stay at the film school in Rome, Tomás Gutiérrez Alea found in this artistic genre the appropriate capacity to create a national cinema, given the urgency of being able to look with a critical eye and tell the reality of Cuban society. Fuelled by this energy, the documentary El Mégano (1955), directed by Julio García Espinosa with Alea’s collaboration, emerged. This was, without a doubt, a documentary that marked a ‘before-and-after’ in the history of Cuban cinema.
When the Revolution arrived, Alea was part of the team that together with Alfredo Guevara formed the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry (ICAIC). In the early 1960s he presented ‘Historia de la Revolución’, the first fiction feature film released by the newly created ICAIC. Likewise, the first promotional poster produced by the Institute was for this film, the work of prolific designer Eduardo Muñoz Bach.
Driven by passion and fury to create a truly authentic cinema with its own identity, in the sixties Alea gave the nation films of great historical and social value. Using jokes, drama, comedy, a society that was in constant change, and the dilemmas faced by people, were explained. These were films such as ‘The twelve chairs’ (1962), ‘The death of a bureaucrat’ (1966) and ‘Memories of underdevelopment’ (1968).
Most of Alea’s films portray a society in motion, maintaining that critical neorealism within cinema throughout his career as a filmmaker, based on constructive, realistic criticism and, of course, with a high degree of authenticity. For example, his film ‘Strawberry and Chocolate’ (1993) became one of the first to talk about homosexuality in national cinema.
Titón throughout his life managed to make more than 20 films, including feature films, documentaries and shorts. He showed a lucidity in highlighting the social, economic and political problems of the country. It is enough to go back to his filmography of the first years of the Revolution to realize how truly free his cinema was.
The Cinemateca de Cuba has devoted special attention to the restoration of his works, and it now has restored five fiction classics and a documentary: ‘The death of a bureaucrat’, ‘Memories of underdevelopment’, ‘A Cuban fight against demons’ (1971), ‘The survivors’ (1978). ‘The Last Supper’ (1976), and the documentary ‘The Art of Tobacco’ (1974). Returning to Titón is to return to the wonderful reality of our cinema.
Summary of Alea’s best known films
‘The twelve chairs’ (1962)
A venture into satirical comedy which is a free version of the famous novel by the Soviets Ilf and Petrov, of which there are previous and later film versions (Czech-Polish, North American, Soviet, German, Russian and Iranian).
When the revolution triumphs, a wealthy woman hides her treasures in her 12 dining room chairs. After her death when her nephew finds out what she had done, the chairs have been distributed and are now in the possession of a dozen different people, so he sets out to track them down and get the treasures he believes rightfully belong to him. Alea’s first comedy contrasting disadvantages of greed and rewards of socialism.
‘The death of a bureaucrat’ (1966)
Titón wrote the script himself, together with Alfredo del Cueto and Ramón F. Suárez. It was a resounding success. Influences of Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Garcia Berlanga and Buñuel have been attributed to him. Slapstick comedy puts the main protagonist played by Salvador Wood in hilarious and dangerous situations, but the style of the film and its corrosive sharpness displays Alea’s sensitive human touch.
Watch a short trailer for Death of a Bureaucrat here
‘Memories of underdevelopment’ (1968)
Considered Alea’s masterpiece. Contrasting the uneasiness of the flawed protagonist, his own prisoner, is the tense expectancy of the city preparing to face an external attack from the USA.
Sergio, a wealthy bourgeois aspiring writer, decides to stay in Cuba just after the revolution even though his wife and friends flee to Miami. Sergio looks back over the changes in Cuba, from the Cuban Revolution to the missile crisis, the effect of living in what he calls “an underdeveloped country”, and his relations with his girlfriends, completely from Sergio’s point of view. Adapted from a novel by Cuban writer Edmundo Desnoes, Alea developed a cinematic style as radical as the times he was chronicling, creating a collage of vivid impressions through the use of experimental editing techniques, archival material, and spontaneously shot street scenes. Intimate and densely layered. The question, perhaps, was what place a man like Sergio could have in a society trying to throw off the shackles of imperialism and the legacy of slavery, without dropping some privilege and joining in?
Watch trailer for Memories of Underdevelopment here
For a fascinating lesson on the importance and meaning of Memories of Underdevelopment – you can watch this talk in English by Criterion Channel
‘The Last Supper’ (1976)
The classic Cuban film tells the story of a pious Havana plantation owner in the 1790s, during Cuba’s Spanish colonial period. The plantation owner decides to recreate the Biblical Last Supper using twelve of the slaves working in his sugarcane fields, hoping to thus teach the slaves about Christianity.
In a misguided attempt to enlighten his African-originating slaves, a Count invites twelve of them to a dinner on Maundy Thursday in a re-enactment of the Last Supper with himself as Christ. Whilst they eat and drink, he also feeds them religious rhetoric and attempts to instruct them in the workings of Christianity. He promises them a day off for the following Good Friday and commits to freeing one of the slaves. However, when these promises are not held up the next day, the slaves rebel. The slaves are then hunted down and killed by their master, except one who escapes.
‘Strawberry and Chocolate’ (1993)
This is, without a doubt, the Cuban film that has achieved the greatest impact on a change in attitudes on the island. Titon made this with fellow filmmaker Juan Carlos Tabío when Titon had just been diagnosed with the cancer that would take his life, while Cuba was in full Special Period, a period of austerity following the loss of the economic relationship with the Soviet Union and socialist bloc. The rawness of the moment is up against the indelible beauty of Havana as a symbol of resistance in the face of adversity. Set in 1979 about a young Communist student’s relationship with a gay Catholic writer, exploring tolerance, inclusion, homophobia and challenging its Cuban audience with great humour. Based on the short story by Cuban writer Senel Paz.
Watch trailer for Strawberry and Chocolate here