Written by Caballero Oscuro
After our half-century embargo against Cuba and our resulting general ignorance of all things Cuban, it’s likely that the first reaction most US viewers will have to this new DVD box set is “Cuba makes movies?” Thankfully, the fine folks at First Run Features have taken the bold step of sifting through the rich and varied archives of Cuban cinema to present this intriguing collection.
Kicking off the set (and also available individually) is an amusing black and white film called The Twelve Chairs, based on an old Russian tale. If the title sounds familiar, it’s because Mel Brooks also made a film based on the same story a few years later. In the film, a formerly rich man is forced to locate all of his mother’s ornate chairs after she spends her dying breath telling him of a fortune in jewels hidden inside one of them. Unfortunately, the chairs have been removed from his family’s home and scattered to various new owners. He’s not particularly clever or resourceful, but he’s aided by an assistant who eventually leads him to the scattered chairs. There’s not much in the way of character development, but the quest is occasionally comedic and offers an interesting look into the aftermath of Cuba’s revolution.
Next up is another black and white film titled The Adventures of Juan Quin Quin, easily the most oddball selection in the package. The title character is a jack of all trades who eventually bumbles his way into a surprising role as a guerilla leader in pre-revolutionary Cuba. The film is wildly inventive for its time, but the result is a mishmash of seemingly unrelated situations that give the impression the filmmakers were winging it without any real cohesive flow. One minute Juan is a poor farmer, then he’s a circus performer, then he’s on to some other random and temporary occupation until the film settles on its revolutionary aim near the end. There’s some implied commentary about the hardships of the poor, having to take whatever work they can to get by, but the film is constructed in such an inscrutable manner that it never seems like any biting indictment of the political environment.
The final three films are in color and were all directed by Humberto Solas. While they have different themes, they share similar glossy, high society settings and explore the problems of its wealthy and powerful denizens, making Solas seem something like a Cuban version of Merchant-Ivory.
In A Successful Man, the roots of the Cuban revolution are explored through the lives of two brothers on different sides of the power struggle. The film has a grand scope, covering 30 years of a family’s history as well as the country’s changes. It benefits from its grand settings and sweeping camera work, but lags in its attention to convincing character development.
In Cecilia, the focus turns to interracial love in the upper class, as the title character longs for acceptance by a white man in spite of her mixed blood. Of all the films, Cecilia seems to have the best character development and most accomplished plot, probably because it concerns itself primarily with matters of the heart instead of the surrounding political climate. As the attractive title character, Daisy Granados provides a heartbreaking turn as a lovelorn lass fighting an uphill battle against an ingrained caste system.
The final film, Amada, also has a love affair at its heart, but cast against the larger backdrop of World War I. Amada is trapped in a loveless marriage and finds solace with her cousin, leading to a Shakespearean tragedy of overwrought proportions. The film never makes us care about Amada, so her melodramatic longing for her paramour comes off as cheap romance novel pap rather than engaging cinema.
All of the movies have been restored for this collection, with crisp and clean pictures throughout. Each disc has limited bonus material, usually a basic photo gallery and director's filmography as well as a brief feature on some aspect of Cuban cinema such as its actresses and current crop of filmmakers. The set could benefit from more in-depth background material as this is clearly an introductory experience for many viewers. Also, the subtitles are positioned beneath the frame in all of the films, meaning that viewers hoping to fully utilize their new widescreens will have to learn Spanish fast or resign themselves to less than optimal viewing settings. Aside from those minor quibbles, the set is an extremely welcome addition to US DVD shelves and will hopefully lead to further exploration of the ignored movie archives of Cuba. For more information, visit First Run Features.