Obituary: Toms Gutierrez Alea
Thursday 18 April 1996
In 36 years Alea made only 11 features, and the best of them is the fifth, Memories of Underdevelopment (Memorias del subdesarrollo, 1968). It is not only the finest, but the largest in theme when he wasn't paying homage to his predecessors - chiefly Bunuel, whose work (in common with most Latin-American film-makers) he idolised. It is by far the most successful of his films, which makes him something of an enigma. The revolution both stimulated him and restricted him.
Alea read Law at Havana University and then went to study at the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografica in Rome, founded by Mussolini. He began making shorts in Cuba in 1955, one of which was seized by the Batista government for subversion. After Castro deposed Batista, Alea was the leading force behind the creation of the Cuban Film Institute, the ICAIC, with whom he made his first feature in 1960, Stories of the Revolution (Historias de la Revolucin), three linked stories of the insurrection against Batista: it was filmed on location, acknowledging Rossellini's Paisa as its model - but unlike that, and his own subsequent films, it clearly cost a lot of money.
The Twelve Chairs (Las Doce Sillas, 1962) is based on the comic Russian novel by Ilya Ilf and Yevgeny Petrov which at other times has provided vehicles for Fred Allen, George Formby, Mel Brooks and others. It was basically a scattershot satire on the bureaucracy created by the revolution, a constant theme in Alea's work. Gumbite (1964), showed him in a more humanist mood, as a young Haitian returns from Cuba to his native village, with echoes of both Shakespeare (Romeo and Juliet) and Pagnol/ Giono (Manon des Sources).
Death of a Bureaucrat (La muerte de un burocrata, 1966) concerns a widow who needs to produce a body before she can collect a pension. She asks her hapless nephew to help her and his response is to steal a cadaver. He manages to be more resourceful than we are led to expect, but he ends up as Harold Lloyd cast in the role of Josef K; unlike Lloyd, however, the slapstick is very much hit-and-run. The film is dedicated to many people in the movies' past, from Eisenstein to Laurel and Hardy, but this only exposes Alea's chief weakness - his dependence on past masters.
Both The Last Supper (La ultima cena, 1976) and The Survivors (Los sobrevivientes, 1978) look to Bunuel, especially to Viridiana and to The Exterminating Angel, mordant essays on a bourgeoisie trying to shake off the yoke of a religion which denies its members their sexuality. (It's to Bunuel, in fact, that the latter is dedicated.) Alea is not alone in this. In Spain, its leading directors of this generation - Juan Antonio Bardem and Luis G. Berlanga - laboured under the shadow of the master.
When they were serious, they were almost as sardonic and sharp-minded as he was, but they both threw everything but the kitchen stove into their later comedies. Discernment is the major requirement of political satire.
That was something Bunuel understood even in his Mexican potboilers. Alea's final film, Guantanamera (1995), echoed the plotting of Bunuel's Subida al Cielo, as several incompetents make life even more difficult for themselves as they travel across the country, but where he was pitiless Alea was lackadaisical.
The film was co-directed by Juan Carlos Tabo, whom Alea had called in to help him on Strawberry and Chocolate (Fresa y chocolate, 1993); he was already dying with cancer. It is probably his most popular film, first seen at the Berlin Film Festival and many another thereafter. Its chief protagonist, as so often with this director, is nonconformist - a gay man in a country less noted for homophobia than machismo. In Cuba under Castro gays didn't exist - or else, like the great cinematographer Nestor Almendros, they were driven abroad. Alea was much praised everywhere for tackling a controversial issue, but in fact his hero, Diego, is one of the old stereotypes, an effeminate man who conceives a passion for straight man, David. He is tempted to succumb - but not often and not much, and he reasserts his heterosexuality with a grand bout on Diego's bed with a whore, played by Alea's wife, Mirta Ibarra.
The film cops out, despite its sentimentality - a quality distinctly absent from Alea's masterpiece, Memories of Underdevelopment. He wrote it himself from a novel by Edmundo Desnoes, who actually appears in it, in a public debate as to whether he is using the country for his own ends or is simply failing to understand it. The time is 1961, and Sergio (Sergio Corrieri), prosperous and well-placed, is staying on as wife, friends and family flee to Miami; he believes - it is more than a creed - that he must come to terms with the new regime. To that end, he keeps a diary. He has a casual affair with a girl from a different class who is bitter about losing her virginity; she begins to love him, but accuses him of rape after he has tried to end the relationship.
He says, "I'm Europeanised. With her, I'm dogged by underdevelopment." They visit Hemingway's home - his refuge, it is said, though, ambiguously, Cuba never really interested him; his bullfighter posters might, perhaps, express a sublimated homosexuality rather than macho man. It is a movie about the past, present and future not only of Sergio - though he is not atypical - but of Cuba itself, a mighty collage of newsreels (the actualite), of memories and fantasies. There is no other film quite like it, and certainly not the nostalgic Letters from the Park (Cartas del parquee , 1988), though that is also the work of a clever and sophisticated film-maker. As adapted from Gabriel Garcia Marquez, it is a retreat to a peaceful provincial 1913, when a young man finds himself losing his beloved to the older man who is writing his love-letters for him.
These days television sometimes commemorates deceased movie-makers with their finest work. Both these films should be shown - and, because of its flashes of brilliance, La ultima cena. This is a director whose work, even the sub-Bunuel pieces, ought to be better known.
Toms Gutierrez Alea, film director, producer, screenwriter: born Havana 11 December 1928; died Havana 16 April 1996.
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