Director: Tomas Gutierrez Alea
Writer: Tomas Gutierrez Alea
Screenplay: Edmundo Desnoes
Starring: Sergio Corrieri, Daisy Granados, Eslinda Nunez, Beatriz Ponchora
Year: 1968
Duration: 93 minutes
Country: Cuba
BBFC Certification: 15

Mr Bongo Essential World Cinema have released a fully restored Blu-ray of this 1968 film, hailed as one of ‘the most sophisticated films ever to come out of Cuba’.  The director (Tomas Gutierrez Alea) constructs the film from a series of reportage styled scenes that follow the thoughts and memories of Sergio (Sergio Corrieri) as he responds to the life around him, the life that came before, and imagining the life that is to come. The social back drop to the film is Cuba in the aftermath of the Revolution of December 1958. Both Sergio’s parents and his estranged wife Laura (Eslinda Nunez) have left Cuba to live in the USA, abandoning the communist society, and marked by the state as failed revolutionaries. Sergio remains, his decision portrayed as almost existential, motivated by his true commitment to authenticity; a sense of social justice, and his rejection of a bourgeoisie comfort that rides on the back of USA imperialism and the consumer society.

What I found interesting about this film is that the director doesn’t shy away from exploring uncomfortable contradictions and conflicts experienced by the central character, and more significantly in the formation of the new Cuban society. The film conveys an atmosphere of danger and chaos. Opening scenes depict celebration on the streets, mass crowds dancing to percussion ensembles, then abrupt interruptions of shootings, assassinations; state control or counter-revolutionary activity? It’s not fully clear. The tenets of the established order are being exposed and replaced - but by what? Other than the will of ‘the people’, no one can really say.

We see Sergio mingling with the crowds interspersed with actual footage of real incidents that took place involving Police crack-down, crowd control, the use of water cannon and brute force. In another scene Sergio retreats to his top floor apartment, and he views the city through the telescope installed on his balcony; he is both participant and observer. Sergio is also a lustful voyeur. The ‘gaze’ of the film is very much male, with lots of shots tracking the bodies of scantily clad women. Sergio seeks to objectify women, and in accordance he tries to form them to the rules of his own ideal.  He fantasises about the young woman Noemi (Beatriz Ponchora) who cleans his apartment, as does he Elena (Daisy Granados) another young woman he meets in the street. Towards the films conclusion Sergio remembers his first lover, a woman by whom he was abandoned,  but in his mind the only woman who ever really understood him.

Sergio walks the streets of Havana, along the boulevards and amongst the arcades, he views the lust, the sexualisation, and the fetishes of a consumer society; a society to which he and others are conditioned to still celebrate and cling to.

Throughout the film there is a montage like feel, with Sergio providing a spoken narrative. There is a lot of stylish cinematography, and the bold contrast of black and white with bright exposure captures the balmy atmosphere of heady post- revolution days. Sergio imparts a critique of the capitalist world his society rejects, but also the confusion within the new regime. Sergio refers to the ‘repetition of archaic forms’ and how ‘words swallow words’. The film is inconclusive, it conveys a sense of things being unknown, and ‘nothing making sense’. It’s climax is paralleled by discussion and reports of the failed attempt by the CIA sponsored counter-revolutionary group Brigade 2506 to invade Cuba (otherwise known as The Bay of Pigs Incident); the director intersperses press conference footage of Fidel Castro where he is saying the cynicism of the attempt by USA to support a coup only strengthens the resolve of the revolutionaries.

The re-release of this film seems timely, and some of its themes could be applied to what is happening in the world today; where one form of society is being challenged, but there is uncertainty as to what will replace it. I can see why this film has received so many accolades. It managed to present a stylish piece of art, a story which follows the plight of an amusing and floored anti-hero, and more widely the mood of a society in the throws of great political change. There are no extras, but the film does have English subtitles. Highly recommended.

Released on Blu-ray Disc 20th February 2017, by Mr Bongo Essential World Cinema.

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