Tributes: Tomas Gutierrez Alea

By Julio Garcia Espinosa and Michael Chanan

A few days after the Cuban director Tomás Gutiérrez Alea died last April, his colleague Julio García Espinosa was on a few days’ visit to England, visiting film schools and workshops in London, Bristol, Cardiff, Sheffield and Liverpool. He left us some words he had penned in Madrid when he heard the news.

Died 17 April 1996.

On 16 April at two in the afternoon, I was interviewing Pilar Miro for the film A Hundred Years of Cinema in Latin America in Madrid, ignorant that two hours earlier, at six in the morning in Havana, Titón had died. Pilar and I were talking, understandably, of how ill he was, and we commented that his loss would not only be the disappearance of a great film-maker but the end of an epoch in Cuban cinema. As we parted, Pilar said to me, ‘Take him a flower from me’.

I didn’t hear the news of his death till hours later when I got back to the hotel and Manolo Perez Estremera called me. I trembled as only a heart cemented to his by 40 years of friendship could do. Titón was part of my life, and I’m sure he felt I was part of his. Together we’d studied at the Centro Sperimentale in Rome, together we’d dreamed of a Cuban cinema, together we’d made El Megano; together we’d fought against the Batista dictatorship, and taken part in the birth of a cinema in the midst of a revolution.

Now he was gone from us, and the end, although anticipated, was no less distressing. His death hurt, in the same way as the belated recognition always reserved for the poor and rebellious of this world. In the 50s, when we were drunk on Italian Neo-realism, Titón with his ever-fresh and never complacent eyes, made us see that not all roads led to Rome. There was no question our days in Italy were happy ones, days when we all believed we could change the world. But we had our own poor traditions and we had to create our own rebellions. That way we grew and learned. Cinema had to take part in life like life must take part in cinema. Together with other Latin Americans at Mamma Rosa’s albergo in Via de Cola di Rienzo, near the Vatican.

I remember the first time he arrived in Rome. It was night and we took a tram. Suddenly, looking through the window, he saw a pair of policemen walking arm-in-arm. It surprised him and he said, ‘They told me there were a lot of them here, but I never imagined there would be so many.’ I laughed and explained that it was quite customary in Italy for men to walk arm-in-arm. He smiled and a week later he and I were walking arm-in-arm ourselves all around Rome. I don’t know why I particularly remember the time we spent in Italy. Probably because that’s where we lived our best dreams, and above all, that’s where our friendship was born.

Titón left us a vision which was pledged to avoid complacency about either about life or death. What’s more, he knew that the best way to love a country is never to cease criticising it. These memories have come to mind while I write these lines. But when I heard the news of his death I had only one thought: the best of us has died.

Michael Chanan writes:

In the 35 years of Cuban cinema, since the Revolution created a film industry where previously there had only been a sporadic succession of individual films, no director has been as self-consistent an author as Tomás Gutiérrez Alea – yet no director conforms less to the conventional notion of what a cinematic author is. It was my great fortune to work with him in the mid-80s, on a project which fell through just when we’d starting casting – an adaptation of The Tempest told from Caliban’s point of view. The development money had come from Channel 4 and ICAIC (the Cuban Film Institute), and the balance of the budget was to come from a Norwegian producer who had put up half the money for Hugh Hudson’s Revolution. When this film went over budget by £4.5m – fully three times our entire budget – our backer withdrew and no-one else could be persuaded to step in.

Titón took it philosophically. He had no illusions about the degree to which, as a Latin American and a Cuban, the odds were stacked against him. He responded the same way to the misinterpretations of his work which regularly cropped up, when Andrew Sarris, for example, described him as a dissident – a kind of Cuban Solzhenitsin – for Memorias del subdesarrollo (Memories of Underdevelopment); or when he was criticised for La ultima cena (The Last Supper) because it wasn’t a contemporary subject; or for not being political when he chose to make a simple love story in Cartas del parque (Letters from the Park).

If most of his life he was denied the greater success which came to him with his penultimate film, Fresa y chocolate (Strawberry and Chocolate), it is not a mark of any kind of parochialism but first of all, a certain truth about films and audiences in an environment hegemonised by Hollywood. It is inevitable if you are Latin American, and Cuban to boot. It is also unlikely if your aim is to make films about ideas, which is a real constant in Titón’s career. The mark of his achievement is that in films like Memorias and La ultima cena he not only pulls the audience into a film of ideas on the hook of the central protagonist, but he does this through a character he doesn’t actually expect them to like, given the nature of popular social prejudices. Sergio is a white petit bourgeois dilettante in the middle of a popular socialist revolution; the Count in La ultima cena is an imperious land- and slave-owner. In Fresa y chocolate, Diego is a gay intellectual: in this case the problem is more with official rather than popular prejudice, but the effect is not dissimilar. These characters are so fully and intensely drawn that honest human sympathy sucks the viewer along. Titón uses this trait, which everyone brings with them into the cinema, to make demands on the spectator, to induce them to think as well as surrender to the screen. When I asked him once how come that Memorias, a film of enormous narrative sophistication, was such a success with the Cuban audience, which was brought up on Hollywood, he said it was because it had intrigued them. He always made it his habit to go and watch his films in the cinemas anonymously to learn about audiences’ responses to them, and by this means, he told me, he discovered that people were going back to see the film a second and third time because it stuck in their minds, and this pulled them back to cinema. This is the kind of cinema we all need.

Titón’s cinema is also one of personal exorcism played out through satire. He told me he made La muerte de un burocrata because he sometimes used to shake with anger at the stupidities of the new bureaucracy which the Revolution itself had created, and he needed to work it through. Sergio in Memorias is obviously his own alter ego. And in his last film, Guantanamera, the private subject of the film is equally clearly, his own approaching death. But one feels that he chose these subjects within himself because he sensed that they coincided with popular experience. No comment needed on the experience of bureaucratic muddles, except to recount another personal memory. I once went with him on one of his anonymous forays to the cinema to see La muerte in La Habana Vieja. He told me that at one of the film’s first showings a woman had run out in the middle in tears. Following her to find out what had upset her, he discovered that the joke he thought he had invented – a body which has to be exhumed to recover the man’s labour card, so his widow can claim her pension – that this had actually happened.

In Memorias the popular interest came from the fact that what intellectuals in Latin America call the desgarramiento, the rupture, the breakdown of the familiar vocabulary of existence in the face of revolutionary change, is not a monopoly of theirs; everyone is confronted with the same problem of the need for the personal reconstruction of values. While in Fresa y chocolate and Guantanamera, Titón succeeded in articulating the popular experience of the Revolution in the more difficult times of the 90s without pulling any punches.

There is also a process of aesthetic exorcism and working through which runs through these films. Cumbite, which I know Titón liked the least among his oeuvre, seems to me a kind of farewell to neo-realism, a cool, almost anthropological vision of Haiti which in Cuba was hardly possible any longer, because the society was changing so dramatically and rapidly. Half the pleasure of La muerte is its homage to American comedy, which has always, of course, constituted a tradition of subversion. If the country where these events take place is thus a hilarious mixture of revolutionary Cuba and the Hollywood land of comedy, it is also Kafkaesque territory. Memorias is a film which clearly talks back to the cinema of Titón’s own generation in the French New Wave about the dangers of literary self-consciousness; and Edmundo Desnoes, author of the novella on which it was based, significantly called it a ‘creative betrayal’ of its source.

Una pelea cubana is in dialogue, on a conscious level Titón told me, with Glauber Rocha. Unwittingly it also addresses the film by Nelson Pereira dos Santos which is the furthest back in historical reconstruction that has been attempted in Brazilian cinema, Como era gostozo o meu francês. The two films were shot around the same time, each unknown to the other. Between them they represent by far the most imaginative visualisations of the origins of modern Latin America to be found in Latin American cinema. La ultima cena completes the work on the history of slavery in which Titón was engaged when he collaborated with Sergio Giral on El Otro Francisco, bringing it together with his life-long admiration for Buñuel, his black humour and anti-clericalism. Then there was his support for Sara Gómez, first, when he worked together with Julio García Espinosa to complete her film De cierta manera when she died during the editing, and then, speaking to it in his own Hasta cierto punto. In Fresa y chocolate, the dialogue is with Nestor Almendros, with whom he made amateur films on 8mm in his university days, an answer to the latter’s Conducta impropia, which Titón called ‘a piece of socialist realism in reverse, a manipulation of reality in the service of political propaganda’.

Like all his films, this sense of dialogue with others is not preconceived and is sometimes only partly conscious, except that Titón knew perfectly well it is always going on, and that this is what the artist’s speech is about, for he found himself doing it to himself – making impromptu self-allusions. These self-references are not deliberate, he said when an interviewer drew his attention to the phenomenon, they arise spontaneously, in the same way certain ideas come up in the course of a conversation. The conversation may be with others, or with your own inner voice – the effect is the same.

Nevertheless, in Fresa y chocolate, the conversation with Almendros was, as Titón admitted, inevitable: Almendros died shortly before the film began shooting, he died of cancer, and Titón had just been diagnosed with the same disease. After the huge effort, under these circumstances, of shooting what was clearly a very demanding film (with the help of Juan Carlos Tabío, the most selfless of all Titón’s collaborators), the huge success it met with both at home and abroad gave him the chance for one last shot, and in returning to a script he had put aside a couple of years earlier, he seized the moment in order to exorcise his private experience one last time, to joke about death in the teeth of it. If this, once again, requires detachment and a proper sense of proportion, Guantanamera (with Tabío again as his co-director) is not about his private death but a death which everyone in Cuba is afraid of going through: the threat of the demise of the socialist dream, which somehow, miraculously, has survived the collapse of the Communist states of Eastern Europe. Unquestionably a wistful film but not one of resignation and negativity, the dialogue with death turns into a dialogue with a dream of life: at its heart is a popular legend, speaking of mortality and the vigour of the young, to whom the old must learn to give way, which is at the same time Titón’s own farewell to life.