(Cuban, 1978, 130 minutes, color, 35mm)
Directed by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea
Los Sobrvivientes was an important signpost on the road of Cuban cinema, as it matured from an explicitly revolutionary cinema to one which began to see its political role in subtler, more ironic terms. This wry Bunuelian comedy shows the ability of the Cuban cinema to chuckle, as well as to preach.
Tomas Gutierrez Alea had won the right to take the young Cuban cinema in a new, unfamiliar direction. No one had produced more elegant cinematic treatises on the revolution than Gutierrez Alea. His 1961 History of the Revolution was the first great history film of the new Cuba, and his masterwork, 1968’s Memories of Underdevelopment, was its Citizen Kane. Gutierrez Alea’s mingling of documentary and fictional forms in one cinematic text prefigured one of the most important aspects of postmodernist cinema. That he was able to achieve this move in a society which often demands that its artists work in a highly rhetorical agit-prop makes this choice even more notable.
For Gutierrez Alea, the revolution is a fact of life, but it is a fact that can be seen through many lenses, and from many vantage points. It is a vast constellation of ideas and positions, ranging from anti-colonialism to the ethnography of class. His films do not shrink from lampooning the Cuban revolution’s excesses or its fetish for bureaucratic detail, something Gutierrez Alea feels the retreating colonialist powers left behind as they fled Cuba in disarray. He frequently chooses the device of the parable as the basic narrative structure for his films, appropriate for the educational and persuasive goals of his work. While Guiterrez Alea took seriously his role as the leading cinematic analyst of revolutionary ideology, he also remained passionately dedicated to a socialist Cuba; his films materially furthered that project.
Los Sobrevivientes shows Gutierrez Alea experimenting with a comic, yet still intensely analytical approach. Like Luis Bunuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, the film mercilessly dissects the delusions of class, and relishes the surreality that occurs when the classes collide. Gutierrez Alea himself had been the son of a privileged family, discovering Marxism while studying law at the University of Havana. Abandoning the law, he studied filmmaking in Italy, and returned to Cuba to lead Castro’s film unit, in the months before the Revolution. Gutierrez Alea made a series of documentary shorts heralding the new in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The early 1960s was a moment in film history when the politically engaged documentary was at high tide, and the greatest documentarists in the world (Richard Leacock, D.A. Pennebaker, Albert Maysles, Chris Marker, Jean Rouch, Joris Ivens, and others) came to Cuba to witness history through their cameras. But Gutierrez Alea warned in print against the tendency of the documentary form to encourage a dangerous belief in the ability of art to relate history objectively. "All attempts to portray reality while avoiding judgement on it, are dud. Sometimes this leads to half-truths, which can be more immoral than a complete lie." It was not surprising then, that his work came to be more and more dominated by overtly fictional cinematic modes, a shift that climaxed with his marvelous human comedy, Strawberry and Chocolate, in 1994.
Los Sobrevivientes has about it the feel of Cuba after the Revolution has settled in, a time when the nation was catching its breath, and casting a less romantic eye at the realities of post-Revolution society. It encourages us to do the hard work of social analysis, refusing to indulge in the quick and easy claims of historical and political accuracy which made Gutierrez Alea nervous about the Revolutionary cinema. By setting his social questions in a comic world, he further undercut the self-righteousness of revolutionary art, demanding of his audience that we do the hard work of social analysis.
— Kevin Hagopian, Penn State University
Dedicated to Luis Bunuel, and recalling the great surrealist’s The Exterminating Angel, this rarely-seen, darkly comic allegory from Cuban master Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, traces the fate of one aristocratic family in the aftermath of Castro’s revolution. The Orozco clan is shocked by the turn of events, but doesn’t believe that the new political situation will last. While their wealthy friends flee to the United States, they decide to wait things out, holed up in their mansion and isolated from the chaos outside. As years pass and their food stocks diminish, they cling stubbornly to the "discreet charm" of the outdated bourgeoisie, but gradually regress through ever-more primitive forms of social order, from capitalism to feudalism to slavery to savagery and worse.
The following is an excerpt from an essay published by Reynaldo González, Director of the Cuban national cinema in Habana, Cinemateca de Cuba. The essay appeared in Cuba Update, the newsletter of the Center for Cuban Studies in New York:
The Cuban Institute of Cinemographic Art and Industry (known by its Spanish acronym ICAIC) became, on March 24, 1959, the first cultural institution to be created by the revolutionary government. It gave particular attention to historical themes, especially those of the recent heroic struggle. Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, one of its founding talents, took on the task of narrating some of these episodes in the 1960 film Historias de la revolución (Stories of the Revolution). This was followed in 1961 by El joven rebelde (The Young Rebel) by Julio García Espinosa with a script by Cesare Zavattini. Gutiérrez Alea and García Espinosa, graduates of Rome's Experimental Cinematography Center, took up arms on a path that started almost from zero. They rejected Hollywood's influence and methods, sought a contemporary form of artistic expression, were disposed to assimilate experimental and anticommercial tendencies, acknowledged a debt to the European avant garde, and had their heads full of dreams.
Cuban filmmakers would refer again and again to the guerrilla struggle, both in their zeal to be of service and because they were inspired by an epic that had given their society a definitive change of direction. From documentary mixed with elements of fiction there emerged here what is internationally referred to as docudrama, a particularly flexible modality for the retelling of historical events.
These were times of searching, of rejecting well-worn paths, and of a decided preference for artistic avant gardes. The new directors, more cultured than their predecessors, started from the innovations of the Italian neorealists, the influence of the French New Wave, and other tendencies of European film. Cuban intellectuals rejected the formulas of so-called socialist realism without negating the epic, which was integral to their experience…. From this point on, ICAIC was the vanguard of intellectual thinking and practice in Cuba, which would be demonstrated later, when the flow of events and the character of the Cuban political process imposed a schematic regimen on the rest of the arts, with particular rigor in theater and literature. Prevailing circumstances determined cinematic genres, with an almost total absence of musicals and light comedies in a country of proven musicality and highly valued idiosyncratic humor. Directors feared falling into clichés; they were too given to complexities, too serious, and too solemn to indulge themselves in the temptations of local color, or even to subvert it.
From today's perspective, this absence reveals something lacking in the output of the time. But the rejection of what had been the leading formulas of the past, from which at all costs these directors wanted to keep their distance, led them down other paths. There was no room for what they considered escapism or bourgeois art. In its place, and as an escape valve, there was a flourishing of irony, a certain type of satire, and black humor with an explicit debt to the Hispanic tradition. In these precincts, Gutiérrez Alea's filmography establishes the paradigm: beginning with Las Doce Sillas (The Twelve Chairs) in 1962 and La Muerte de un burócrata (The Death of a Bureaucrat) in 1966, it was reaffirmed in 1978's Los Sobrevivientes (The Survivors)… the deluded adventure of an aristocratic family who, at the triumph of the revolution, sought refuge in their mansion while awaiting the supposed U.S. invasion; in fact, they devolve into successively inferior historical states within their sanctuary.
The following is an excerpt from The New York Times obituary for Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, April 17, 1996:
Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, the celebrated Cuban director of "Memories of Underdevelopment," "Strawberry and Chocolate" and other films, died yesterday in Havana. He was 69.
The cause was cancer, the news agency Reuters reported. Generally regarded as Cuba's foremost director, Mr. Gutiérrez Alea was a controversial film maker who found a wide popular audience. "Strawberry and Chocolate," the first Cuban film with an openly gay main character, was a major box-office success in Cuba, the United States and other countries.
In her review in the New York Times, Caryn James said that the "most amazing aspect" of the film was that it was "a breezy charmer about a relationship shaped by severe political struggle." It was shown at the 1994 New York Film Festival and last year was nominated for an Academy Award as best foreign language film.
Denying that he was a dissident, Mr. Gutiérrez Alea said, "Many people think if you criticize the government, then you are giving weapons to the enemy." On the other hand, he said, criticism was his obligation. He regarded himself as "a man who makes criticism inside the revolution, who wants to ameliorate the process, to perfect it, but not to destroy it."
Mr. Gutiérrez Alea was born in Havana and came from a wealthy Cuban family. Although he started out to be a lawyer, he soon switched careers and in the early 1950's went to Italy to study film. Inspired by neo-realism, he returned to Cuba to make documentaries. An early short film of his, made during the regime of Fulgencio Batista, was seized by the police. When Fidel Castro came to power, Mr. Gutiérrez Alea directed his first feature, "Stories of the Revolution," an anthology of three stories about the Cuban revolution.
Looking back on his early films, the director said: "You just had to set up your camera in the middle of the street and something interesting would happen. That is how we learned to make movies in Cuba."
Comedy was an important element in his work, as in "The 12 Chairs" and "Death of a Bureaucrat" (about the strangulation of society by red tape), which drew upon such sources as Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy.
The director's reputation was firmly established in 1968 with "Memories of Underdevelopment," which dealt with an intellectual trying to find his place in post-revolutionary Cuba. In his review in The Times, Vincent Canby called it a "superb Cuban film" that is "wise, sad and often funny" and "is complete in the way that very few movies are." "The Last Supper" was greeted by Mr. Canby as "a fine, cool, almost detached political parable told entirely in religious terms."
Speaking about "Strawberry and Chocolate," Mr. Gutiérrez Alea offered a characteristic call for freedom. He said the movie was "about the intolerance and incomprehension of those who are different, and that applies not only to homosexuals, but to everyone who is discriminated against."
Despite his illness, he continued to work. After "Strawberry and Chocolate," he and Mr. Tabio made "Guantanamera," a satire about bureaucracy, one of the director's favorite subjects. When the film was shown last year at the Venice Film Festival, he said that absurdity was so much a part of daily life in Cuba "that what seems exaggerated is really true."
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