Gutiérrez Alea and the in love zoom

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by: Joel del Rio

Regarding cinema, the multidisciplinary event that Habanarte represents includes four  panoramic cycles in a schedule that begins with  “Glance at the past and present Cuban cinema”, up to “55 years of a shared dream: the new Cuban cinema”, with essential stops on “Tomás Gutiérrez Alea… up to a point” and “We, music and  Cuban cinema”. And as this event takes place on the capital, and it focuses on a great deal of films where the city is the protagonist, or at least an important character, we decided to bring out the praiseworthy or imprecations about this subject, as clearly Cuban cinema is going through a kind of obsession with the biggest city of this country, mainly since the 90’s up to day.

Among the different reasons that explain the filmmaking “havinitis”, it is a very important factor the lack of resources to travel with a group of people and shoot in other provinces, far from the biggest artistic and economic gathering that the Island has. Besides, the movie world has always been a metropolitan matter, made by the use of city dwellers, and nobody should be surprised then by the recurrence on urban subjects. And it is not that we are working with a value system different from the ones that function within the contemporary audiovisual world, because any big city, from Paris, Berlin and New York, to Rio de Janeiro and Cairo, have hundreds of movies where it is shown the impact of some architectonic and economic changes, or it is shoot the complex interrelation between the environment, behavior and subjectivity.

Regardless of the resignation of Cuban creators to record on image and sound what they know best and have closer, Havana is much more than a backdrop in some films exhibited during these days like The death of a bureaucrat, A girlfriend for David, Vampires in Havana, A successful man, The beauty of Alhambra, Vertical love, Nothing, Suite Habana or Ana’s film. It should require to write ten works like this for explaining the presence of the capital in each of these works, so I merely bring out two films by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea and I briefly review the symbiosis with the city that the protagonists of Underdevelopment Memories and Strawberry and chocolate show.

On “Tomás Gutiérrez Alea… up to a point” it stands out the presence of an interview given to Jorge Luis Sánchez about the classic Underdevelopment Memories, maybe as a complement to the exhibition of the best Cuban film of all times. Among other enlightening thoughts in Underdevelopment… it is criticized Havana as a metropolis that gradually was losing its style and elegance. As he looks through his telescope from the seafront to the bay, we hear Sergio’s voice off-screen saying: “All remains the same. Here all remains the same. For a moment, it looks like a stage, a cardboard city”.

Further on, around Galiano and San Rafael streets, crowded by people who walk in all directions, the character sets his classist and ideological position and he observes with cynicism not only all the slogans from a Republican past, but he also observes rusticity, dangerous leveling-off, consternation: “Since El Encanto department store burned down, Havana city looks like a small town. It is incredible that it was considered the Paris of the Caribbean. At least that’s how tourists and whores called it. Now, it rather looks like a Tegucigalpa of the Caribbean, not only because they burned down El Encanto department store and there are few good things on the stores, but also because of people. What’s the point of life for them? And for me? What’s the point for me? But I’m not like them”.

Perhaps the most absolute downfall of an urban myth could be authenticated through Underdevelopment Memories and Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, on the scene where Sergio and Elena are the protagonists; it takes place during their visit to Finca Vigía, usual residence of Ernest Hemingway. The mock touches not only the writer and his mentality, which is colonizing deep down in his heart, but it also mocks everyone who uses Hemingway’s presence in Havana as a reason to save us from provincialism. As always, throughout the movie, we witness Sergio’s thoughts out loud:

“The tropic: that’s for underdeveloped countries are for, to kill wild animals, to go fishing, to sunbathe, and there you have the Beautiful Cuban Señorita.  (…) His name is René Villarreal, and Hemingway found him when he was a kid playing around the streets of San Francisco de Paula. I also read that somewhere. He shaped him to his needs: the servant loyal to his great lord, the colonizer and Gunga Din. Hemingway must have been an unbearable fellow. Here he had his sanctuary, his tower, his island in the tropics, boots to hunt in Africa, American furniture, Spanish photos, magazines and books in English, posters of bulls. Cuba didn’t really interest him. Here he sheltered, received his friends, wrote in English and fished on the Gulf Stream”.

Twenty five years later, Gutiérrez Alea codirects with Juan Carlos Tabío Strawberry and chocolate, which preserves in one piece the love for Havana, a city that sometimes is a co-star character and it becomes an architectonic icon of Cuban culture as well as Lezama Lima, Cervantes or Alicia Alonso, just to mention three paradigms that the film refers to. Of course, Gutiérrez Alea keeps his inquisitive spirit, and on the scene after Diego’s acceptance as tutor and teacher of David, we hear Diego’s voice while the camera goes over the saddle roofs and tiles: “We live in one of the most wonderful cities of the world. You still have time to see some things before they fall down and everything goes to hell”.

David replies angry: “Damn! Man, don’t be unfair, there are a lot of things, a city doesn’t…” Diego interrupts him without giving any chance to answer: “They are letting it to fall down, don’t argue that”. David just stammers: “We are a small country, with many things…” But his interlocutor doesn’t step back: “It’s as if they don’t care about it. They don’t feel pain when they see it”. And then David finds the undeniable and magic, the almost absolute truth: “Some don’t care. You and I do care”.

Afterwards, David walks alone while he observes the collapses…  learns about stained-glasses on a book… he stops full of surprise at the Palace of General of the Army and the Old Square… he walks around the ruins of a city attacked by erosion, poverty and indifference. David has absolutely lost his innocence: he just understood that every beautiful thing in the world, including Havana, has a sense of sadness and loss. 




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