Cinema is “the most powerful and provocative form of artistic expression, and the most direct and widespread vehicle for education and bringing ideas to the public”, according to the regime that came into place after Fidel Castro’s Cuban Revolution in 1959. The government instituted the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry, better known by its acronym ICAIC, to produce, distribute and promote cinema throughout the island nation. Some of the best-known Cuban films documented as well as critiqued life in the Communist nation. A separate strand of highly critical films about Cuba made by members of the diaspora, particularly in the United States of America, later emerged in the 1970s.
Among the best-known Cuban filmmakers is Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, and his towering achievement is Memories of Underdevelopment (1968), about a writer who stays back in Havana after the revolution and tries to fit in with the changed political and social order. The stylistically audacious adaptation of the Edmundo Desnoes novel Inconsolable Memories remains one of the most oft-quoted examinations of the Cuban experience in the ’60s, and was recently restored by Cineteca di Bologna and ICAIC. The film produced a response in the form of Memories of Overdevelopment, directed by Miguel Coyula in 2010 and exploring similar terrain.
Among Alea’s later works is Strawberry and Chocolate (1994), co-directed with Juan Carlos Tabio. Set in 1979, the comedy explores homophobia in Cuba through the friendship between a university student and a gay artist who is opposed to Castro.
A far more trenchant examination of Communist Cuba’s treatment of homosexuals and dissidents is provided by Julian Schnabel’s Before Night Falls (2001), starring Javier Bardem as gay poet Reinaldo Arenas and Johnny Depp in a double role as a sadistic prison warden and a transvestite.
Alongside Memories of Underdevelopment, one of the best-known arthouse Cuban features is Lucia (1968). In Humberto Solas’s first feature, three phases of history (1895, 1932, and the years after the Cuban Revolution) are depicted through three women, all named Lucia.
I Am Cuba (1964), made before Lucia, was a Cuban-Soviet co-production directed by Michael Kalazatov (The Cranes Are Flying, Letter Never Sent). Rejected by both Communist countries for failing to be adequately revolutionary in spirit and content, I Am Cuba is now celebrated for its bold narrative flourishes, unusual camerawork and striking black-and-white compositions.
Far more successful than I Am Cuba was Viva Cuba (2005), a children’s film by Juan Carlos Cremata. The story of a friendship between two children that is tested by class prejudice and migration, was a domestic hit and won the best children’s film prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 2005.
The country’s thriving music scene finally got the global recognition it deserved in Wim Wenders’s Buena Vista Social Club (1999). The documentary captures American musician Ry Cooder’s efforts to record an album with some of the most reputed Cuban musicians, including Ibrahim Ferrer and Compay Segundo. The movie soundtrack remains a bestseller.
The Cuban American diaspora has provided opposing views of Castro’s authoritarian policies. Among the better-known films made by the community is Bitter Sugar (1996), a black-and-white production about the repression and human rights abuses faced by ordinary citizens.
Hollywood has also dropped in on pre-revolutionary Cuba from time to time. Carol Reed’s 1959 adaptation of Graham Greene’s novel Our Man in Havana stars Alec Guinness as a vacuum cleaner salesman who is actually a secret agent. Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Part II (1974) is set in the period of the Bautista dictatorship and features Mafia don Michael Corleone’s efforts to forge business ties with local criminals, which are thwarted by the Cuban Revolution. An instrumental version of the Cuban standard Guantanamera is playing in the background when Michael accuses his brother Fredo of having betrayed him.
Sidney Pollack’s simply titled Havana (1990) is also set in the dying days of the Bautista regime. Robert Redford plays a gambler who gets involved with Lena Olin’s married revolutionary.
In 2010, the Cuban capital was given the same anthology treatment meted out to New York City and Paris. The Cuban-French-Spanish co-production 7 Days in Havana comprises seven short films, one for each day of the week, by such directors as Elia Suleiman, Julio Medem and Benicio Del Toro (who played Che Guevara in the Steven Soderbergh biopic).