Guantanamera (1995) was the last movie by the master of Cuban film, director Tomas Gutierrez Alea (who already had lung cancer when he started this film). He also enlisted the help of his young protégé, Juan Carlos Tabio, who co-directed the movie with him. Tomas, also called Titon, was probably most famous for his 1994 film Fresa y Chocolate (Strawberry and Chocolate).
In the mid-1990s, Cuba was deep into her "special period." Marking this special period was shortage, disillusionment, and deep social change. Many who grew up right after the "Triumph of the Revolution" were starting to question, albeit quietly, the path of Fidel Castro and the revolution.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba lost her major supporter and her main source of commodities. This inevitably left the population with major shortages. This created a need for hard currency, something Cuba did not need under her Soviet benefactors. Tourism fast became the answer and Cuba opened her doors to the world again. Made in Cuba during this special period, Guantanamera reveals an interesting view of socialism and human frailty.
Guantanamera, which means "a woman from Guantanamo," starts out with Gina, played by Mirtha Ibarra, awaiting her Aunt Yoyita in Guanatanamo. Yoyita is a famous singer living in Havana who has not been to Guantanamo in 50 years.
While she is in Guantanamo, Yoyita meets up with her childhood sweetheart Candido while attending a ceremony honoring her. After 50 years, Candido and Yoyita swap stories and Candido announces his undying love for Yoyita after all this time. All this reminiscing takes its toll on Aunt Yoyita, and she soon keels over, has a heart attack, and dies.
Gina is a former economics professor married to Adolfo, a government official (a Fidelista) who has fallen from favor in the communist party. Adolfo, as the head of a committee on burials, is trying desperately to gain some recognition and favor with the party faithful.
Adolfo, away in Havana, recently hatched a grand plan to save both money and resources. Cuban law states that when someone dies the burial occurs in whichever city the will states. For example, if someone dies in Guantanamo and wants a burial in Havana, the province of Guantanamo has to transport the body to Havana.
Adolfo's grand plan was to have each province transport the bodies only as far as the next closest funeral parlor in a neighboring province. This would save the precious quota of gasoline that each funeral director received. Of course, the regional directors hated the plan.
As fortune would have it, Adolfo recognizes a chance for greatness with the unfortunate death of Aunt Yoyita. Hers would be the first casket transported under this new directive and Adolfo would personally go on the trip to supervise.
Adolfo, his driver, Gina, and Candido leave the funeral parlor in the middle of the night, after the lights go out in the middle of the viewing. This is a bad omen for the trip, but a common occurrence in Cuba. Driving an utterly unreliable Russian Izh-412 "Moskvitsh," they follow behind the hearse.
About the time the four are in the countryside of Guantanamo Province, another character is introduced — Mariano, a truck driver. He tries to get out of a commitment to drive one of his girlfriends to Havana and promises to come back and take her next time. Rushing out of his current situation, Mariano meets up with his partner Ramon. Ramon is in no mood to leave and is highly superstitious, but Mariano needs to get out of town quickly. As they are getting ready to get in the truck and go, Adolfo and company drive by.
As Adolfo drives by, a man is selling garlic on the side of the road. Being a good black marketer the chauffeur decides to stop and buy some of the garlic. He will sell this on the black market himself when he gets to Havana. He tries to get the ever-communist Adolfo to buy some also, but he does not have any money. They cost one dollar or 60 Cuban pesos. In the end the chauffeur ponies up his own money and buys them. They then pull up to a fast food establishment along the side of the road and ask what there is to eat. In true Cuban fashion the waitress responds with disinterest, "Nothing."
Meanwhile, Ramon makes an offering to Oggun, his patron saint in Santeria. He sprays rum on the tires and blows cigar smoke on the truck. This is for luck and safety. Mariano, who graduated as an engineer, wants no part of this "brujeria" (witchcraft). Off they go, following the same route as Adolfo.
Like most everyone in Cuba, Ramon and Mariano are always looking for a way to make some extra money. They stop along the highway and pick people up, loading them into the back of the truck for some easy money. Since this is a government truck, they are not supposed to charge anything.
Adolfo is still having no luck as he tries to get some food or drink. Everyone is out of everything and there is nothing to sell (at least legally). Finally, Mariano and Adolfo end up in the same roadside cafeteria and Ramon runs into Gina and they look at each other. Ramon realizes that Gina was his professor back in college and they reminisce.
One thing to note is that many professionals, such as doctors, lawyers, and engineers, take jobs allowing them to get cash. In Mariano's case, he was an engineer. Driving a truck allows him to pick up cash on the black market. Doctors use their state-supplied vehicles as taxis and so on and so forth.
Once more, Adolfo's complete belief in socialism lets him down. He tries to pay in Cuban pesos and this restaurant only takes dollars. During the special period,when this film was made, currency was in transition. Dollars were becoming the preferred form of payment. Only a year or so before this film was made, it was illegal for almost all Cuban citizens to have dollars. Cubans had to pay in Cuban pesos and tourists had to pay in dollars.
The two parties continue to cross paths as the landscape goes by. Shortages are everywhere. Ration coupons are needed even for lunch in the funeral parlors where Adolfo is the boss. At one point Ramon has to pick up as many passengers as will fit in the truck. This still goes on in Cuba today. Driving a government vehicle outside of the major cities requires that the driver stop at some checkpoints. The bureaucrat who has the clipboard will ask the driver where they are going. When the driver tells him, he announces the destination and anyone going there will get on. In some cases passengers stand for hours in the hot sun both waiting and traveling. This is the "Triumph of the Revolution."
As the story continues, Adolfo sees his new plan at work. There are a few obvious problems, but they all seem to get sorted out. It seems that with some changes, Adolfo's plan may even be worthwhile.
Mariano also becomes the center of another love affair that is brewing. He is a veritable Don Juan and seems to have a woman in every city. This new obsession just may change him.
I will not reveal what happens at the end, but this is a satire and romantic drama all at once. I tried to explain some of the nuances of the film that someone who has never lived in Cuba would miss. The main storyline is straightforward and even with subtitles nothing will be missed.
One of the interesting things about this movie is how Titon makes fun of all aspects of Cuba. Many people watching wondered why the regime of Fidel Castro would allow him to make this movie with its disguised and undisguised criticism. Titon, however, was good friends with Fidel (he went to school with him), and felt strongly that criticism would make the revolution stronger and more vibrant.