don’t walk, R U N

RUN to wherever you go for your movies.  Your library?  A retail store?  TCM shop?  amazon?  I wish I could add your movie theater to the list, but that is the least likely spot to find the films of Cuban director Tomas Guttierez Alea.  Please imagine an accent over the a in Tomas and over the first e in Guttierez  —  and all other appropriate Spanish accents; then RUN to get acquainted, if you are not already, with movies made by a real artist who died in 1996.  You will also be getting acquainted with, if you are not already, the work of writer/director Juan Carlos Tabio, Alea’s frequent collaborator.

GUANTANAMERA

This charming road movie is a romantic comedy that makes us laugh while pulling our heartstrings.  Gina (the beautiful Mirta Ibarra) is on a multicar highway drive to bury a family member.  Heretofore a submissive wife, Gina finds herself reassessing her marriage to Adolfo (Carlos Cruz) who is a bureaucrat at home as well as at work and as funeral director and family member is one of the caravan.

Gina is encouraged by an encounter en route with Mariano, a former student of hers.  Rediscovering the teacher on whom he had a crush (there is no age difference), Mariano begins reassessing his own life of truck driver with a girl at every crossing.  Along behind the hearse on this lengthy funeral ride is Candido (Raul Eguren) who all his life had loved the aunt the family is burying.  They had never married.  They exemplify a lost opportunity  —  Cubans in a kind of French missed moment.

There is rich and touching humanity in all the characters, impressively played by a well-cast ensemble.  And there are hilarious moments, many based on what appear to be the facts of Cuban political and commercial life.  Almost everyone seems committed to the revolution but willing to bend or skirt ideological principles in the interest of reasonable living and/or consumer goods.

Guantanamera
Tomas Gutierrez Alea, Juan Carlos Tabio
1996
screenplay: Eliseo Alberto, Alea and Tabio

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STRAWBERRY AND CHOCOLATE

It is difficult to classify this film as anything but a romantic comedy.  Yet like Guantanamera it has serious undertones and considerable social commentary.  Diego and David are part-time university students, and Diego is pursuing David (Vladimir Cruz) who is sometimes knowing and sometimes naive.  Diego is a flaming gay and an anti-revolutionary who insists that he is loyal to the real Cuba.  Diego’s best friend is a woman, played by the superb Mirta Ibarra.  Conflict arises when friend Nancy becomes as interested in David as Diego is  —  and when a politically militant roommate of David’s conceives making trouble for Diego.

The plot does not begin to express how engrossing and human Strawberry and Chocolate is.  The simple story becomes a real struggle between ideology and feeling.  Both men grow, especially David.  But it is actor Jorge Perugorria who makes this film.  His effeminate, overly-dramatized characterization could not be more different from his roaring woman chaser Mariano of Guantanamera.  And he is a dazzling success.

Strawberry and Chocolate
Tomas Gutierrez Alea and Juan Carlos Tabio
1993
screenplay by Senel Paz and Alea

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THE LAST SUPPER

The Last Supper tells the story of a slave rebellion on a Cuban sugar plantation.  Though set in the 18th century the Marxism of the screenplay is obvious.  But the duke who owns the plantation and the sugar operation is no cardboard capitalist monster.  The slave-driving overseer is, however.  It is the combination of his cruelty and the duke’s naivete that precipitates the crisis which forms the climax.

During Holy Week the duke conceives the idea that on the Thursday he will wash the feet of twelve of his slaves.  He follows up this Christian ritual by sitting down to a festive meal with these twelve workers, several of whom reveal themselves as interesting characters.  But they have not desired this foot washing, nor have they wanted to eat with their master who  —  if he thinks about it at all  —  assumes they will feel honored.

Accordingly, during the dinner he preaches to them of the suffering of Christ, expecting this to help them accept their status and their hard life.  He does not grasp what a great miscalculation this is on his part  —  his increasingly drunken part.  Before the meal is over he has promised the slaves Good Friday, the next day, off.

The overseer insists they work, the slaves feel betrayed;and when they revolt the duke feels betrayed by them, never grasping their sense of his betrayal of them.  In his anger he becomes as monstrous as Don Manuel the overseer who is the real traitor here.

The several slave supporting roles are well cast  and finely played.  Manuel Puig’s name appears in the cast list.  Nelson Vellarga is excellent as the duke who really believes in Christ and his life and his message and lives his own life commemorating the events in Jesus’ history without ever once considering the implementation of Jesus’ teachings.  There is a local priest who is prissy and fussy, but he wants to be just to the slaves and wants Don Manuel and the duke to be.  The script has us wanting the death of Don Manuel as we want the success and survival of runaway slave Sebastian.

At one point during a tour of the sugar plant, resident scientist Gaspar tells the priest that “what becomes white must first be black” and that “sugar is purged by fire like souls in Purgatory.

The tale begins on the Wednesday of Holy Week, the Wednesday before Holy Thursday.  In a strange writer’s mistake, the day is described as Ash Wednesday.

The Last Supper
Tomas Gutierrez Alea
1976
from the novel by Moreno Fraginals

                       Tomas Gutierrez Alea  1928 – 1996

NEXT FRIDAY POST August 23
See you at the movies,
Rick

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