You can’t do much thinking about contemporary Cuba without iconic images raising their chicly radical head: pictures of bearded men coming down from the hills, Fidel Castro’s cigar, anything at all to do with Che. The right-wing Cuban exile community has never been able to overcome the public-relations problem posed by a tropical revolution with such a dashing profile, this despite the Castro regime being a dictatorship, technically.
A revolution that produced filmmakers like Tomás Gutiérrez Alea and Sergio Giral is hard to demonize as well, although anyone who organizes their political in/out list with an eye to foreign film releases is probably already predisposed to certain kinds of sympathy. Those directors’ works, especially Alea’s, make up the core of the 30-plus shorts and features currently on view at the Walter Reade. High priest, disciple, and foot soldier rolled into one, Gutiérrez Alea has the most international cred of Cuban filmmakers thanks to his wryly fatigued homage to bourgeois intransigence, Memories of Underdevelopment (1968), but his career is legitimately emblematic. From the episodic and cautionary wartime propaganda of Stories of the Revolution (1960) to the black comedic burial in Death of a Bureaucrat (1966) to the personal-is-political high jinks of Strawberry and Chocolate‘s gay/straight group hug (1994), Alea has ranged over a wide swath of contemporary Cuban reality, critiquing the very revolution that made his work possible without ever abandoning fellow director Julio Garcia Espinosa’s 1969 charge to find “a new audience in those who struggle and… themes in their problems.”
Along with the difficulties of running a socialist utopia, race and slavery are well-worn touchstones in the Cuban cinema. In between obsessing about shifting social mores, Alea also produced The Last Supper (1977), nervily recasting the New Testament with 12 slaves and their owner, who sits down to dine with them in order to prove (mostly to himself) his essential good nature. Supper uses a mix of absurdity and brutality to approximate the unthinkable realities of widespread chattel slavery while also linking it to features of contemporary Cuban society: the peculiar apostolic rationalism of socialism, old-line Christianity, the island’s color caste system, and its syncretic Afro-Catholic religions. Less given to didactic intellectual flourish but equally surreal is Sergio Giral’s “slave trilogy.” Despite some fevered rawness, these films comprise a thorough reworking of the Hollywood plantation mythos: There’s the The Other Francisco (1975), a bloody soap opera of slave romance, the spaghetti western–meets–Moby Dick hysteria of Slave Hunter (1976), where the title character looks to hunt down a famous fugitive leader, and then the historically lucid intrigues of Maluala (1979), where the Afrocentric leadership of fugitive palenque communities is pitted against each other COINTELPRO-style by Spanish colonists. Always willing to risk a certain incompleteness, either asethetic or political, these are films that were forged in a righteous, red-hot ferment but still found the courage and wit to ask questions about the society around them. History’s verdict on the Cuban revolution is still pending, but on celluloid, it looks pretty good.