GUANTANAMERA (Cuba, 1994) *** 1/2
Take your pick as they all apply to "Guantanamera, " the last film by the "Maestro" of Cuban Cinema, Tomas Gutierrez Alea (1928-1996), called Titon (Tee-TON) by all his friends. He was already ill with lung cancer when he made it. As for his penultimate feature "Strawberry and Chocolate" (1993) he sought the collaboration of filmmaker Juan Carlos Tabio, 15 years his junior, who also gets directorial credit in both features.
"Guantanamera" means the woman from Guantanamo (the town, not the U.S. base). It is probably the best-known Cuban song. In Cuba, various singers put their own lyrics on the melody. Here it is heard several times, with different comments, descriptions or suggestions.
The film's structure is that of the familiar road movie in which people try to get from point A to point B as events, happenings or adventures accumulate. In her teens, Yoyita left Guantanamo, became a famous singer, returned after 50 years to see her niece Georgina (aka Gina), also met Candido, the great love of her youth who had never stopped thinking of her. The charming senior citizens have a wonderfully romantic reunion. They reminiscences of the same event but with different images, are just like those of former lovers Maurice Chevalier and Hermione Gingold singing "I Remember It Well" in the musical "Gigi." Then big-time artist Yoyita dies suddenly in the arms of provincial brass-player Candido.
The main female role belongs to Gina. She is played by the enchanting stage-and-screen actress Mirtha Ibarra, whose film debut was in "The Last Supper" by Alea. Mirtha and Titon married (he for the second time), had three daughters and were still together 22 years later, when Titon died. Gina, formerly an economics professor, is now married to Adolfo, an official fallen from grace (for undisclosed reasons). Sidelined by the administration as the head of a minor committee on burials, he is now trying to regain recognition. Adolfo conceives a pea-brained scheme for savin fuel in gasoline-strapped Cuba: those who die far from their desired burial places will be transported by a system of relays between cemeteries.
Fate would have it that the first candidate for this long-distance experiment is Auntie Yoyita, who must be taken to Havana, almost at the other end of the island. The trip, fraught with obstacles and coincidences, takes through the landscape and, more importantly, the humanscape. We see a Cuba whose inhabitants do not lose their sense of humor but have to invent ways to survive financially. Truck-driver Mariano who has an engineering degree but must make a living, and his more mature buddy Ramon, who though sensible still believes in witchcraft, take illegal passengers. Sellers along the roads offer goods, mostly edibles, for dollars, not Cuban money. Adolfo has none, but his chauffeur, himself a black-marketeer (or entrepreneur) does, buys bananas and shares them with his boss.
A sly reminder by a tour guide mentions that a certain town, over several centuries was the center of smuggling and had dealings with forbidden countries. It doesn't take a doctorate in history to see the reference to contemporary Cuba.
The paths of Mariano's truck and Adolfo's troublesome car (no doubt Soviet-built) with Adolfo, Gina and Candido as passengers, keep crossing. Both background and foreground keep pointing to the shortages (of everything) in Cuba, where one-table "secret" restaurants spring up; where a fan-belt is a small treasure; where coupons are needed for many things, even in a cemetery's cantina; where the car's riders munch bananas from the subterranean economy as the radio spouts positive agricultural statistics
Among many disturbances, there's another romance brewing. I will not let the cat out of the bag except to say that Mariano is at the love story's epicenter, and that he complicates things. Mariano is a Don Juan with the equivalent of a girl in every port. Here it's a lover in every town, gas-station, truck-stop or train-crossing. (A sex-hungry young woman brings to mind the Czech satire "Closely Watched Trains.") The relationships are funny even when the premises are not.
Gags are brought in naturally. Windshield wipers activate when the car is bumped; a woman tells of man who died unexpectedly, then reveals that he was 107 years old. But "Guantanamera" is not simply an entertainment. It is a movie about life, love and death during the hard times of an impoverished nation.
Alea, started his career as a dedicated celebrant of the Cuban Revolution. Later, when he made the first big pictures that brought him international fame ("Death of a Bureaucrat"1966; "Memories of Underdevelopment" 1968), many began to see him as a critic of the Fidel Castro regime, even though Alea and Castro had been schoolmates and were friends. But it was a misinterpretation of Alea's complexity, and a matter of semantics.
As Alea repeatedely phrased it (with varations), "to be critical is to make a militant film for the Revolution". Or, "for the Revolution to grow, for our country to develop positively, criticism is necessary."
"Guantanamera" has no villains. It looks upon all its characters with sympathy, understanding or at a minimum, tolerance. The main butt of its criticism is Adolfo, that misguided, counterproductive, symbolic, ambitious, egotistic and silly bureaucrat. In its own, rather kinky way, "Guantanamera" is like Part Two of "Death of a Bureaucrat" of some thirty years earlier. Like that film, like much of the rest of Alea's output (about a dozen out of a total of ca. 22 pictures), there's always a tricky patriotic balancing act of theory against practice, of Marxist dialectics that uphold principles while they castigate misapplications. The process, neither obvious nor simple-minded, sometimes caused confusion in the public as well as the critics.
It seems to me that Alea is sending his viewers, especially the Cubans, a message about the necessity to clean house. This is colorfully, deviously, subtly recounted as the legend of Olofin, the God who created life but forgot to create death. There follow millenia of ever-aging populations which engulf the young -- until the other deity, Iku, brings about rain and floods, so that all the aged drown and only physically fit younger people survive. Thus did Iku terminate progress-impeding immortality. All this is far more poetic than the American "Time for a change, " or "We need new blood."
Among the subtleties of this seemingly simple movie, is the fact that we see very few slogans: only one banner says "Socialism or Death." And the fact that this seriocomic, appealing "realistic fantasy" neither mentions nor hints at the Big Bad Wolf. One can almost hear Alea saying: "Yes, the Yankees are partly to blame for our troubles, but we should not use this as an excuse or an alibi for our own shortcomings."
"Guantanamera" was nominated for the Golden Lion at the 1996 Venice Film Festival and honored at several others.