Film Scouts Reviews


by Liza Bear

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"Laughter can be really helpful in making clear the absurdity of specific situations, which helps me confront absurdity with reason." - Tomas Guiterrez Alea

"Death is always unexpected", Ramon says in Tomas Alea's "Guantanamera" (1994). The line became sadly prophetic in that Cuba's most notorious revolutionary director did not live to see his last film, which was completed by his long-time colleague Julius Tobia. Though less pointed and absurdist than the early satire "Death of a Bureaucrat" (1966), "Guantanamera" is nevertheless a warm, highly enjoyable entertainment, its lighthearted tone set by the title theme song which permeates the score. The film provides a spirited portrait of contemporary Cubans some 30 years into the US trade embargo, coping with a ravaged infrastructure and endemic shortages. Structured as a double-barrelled road movie with parallel subplots, one strand of the story kicks off with diva Yoyita's (Conchita Brando) return to her home town of Guantanamo after a 50-year absence, and her sudden demise. The rush of memory --in particular, being reunited with an old flame, Candido (Raul Eguren), proves to be too much, and she expires while singing a cut from one of her records. At Yoyita's request, funeral arrangements in Havana have been entrusted to her niece Georgina (sensitively played by Alea's widow, Mirtha Ibarra), a former economics professor now trapped in her marriage. "You may know economics but administration has you beat," snaps Adolfo (Carlos Cruz), Georgina's aptly-named husband, Hitlerian mustache and all. Cruz in the role personifies Alea's vision of malevolence as the Cuban apparatchik, an ambitious, pesky bureaucrat on automatic pilot, rarely on screen without schedule and watch in hand. The task of transporting Yoyita's coffin from one end of the island to the other enables Adolfo to test a pet project of his: a cockamamie, allegedly fuel-saving relay plan for undertakers that consists of exchanging hearses at small towns on the way--Bayamo, Canaguay, Santa Clara.

Absurd though the plan may be, the segmented journey undertaken by the blue-ribboned coffin, accompanied by Georgina, Adolfo, and Candido allows for plenty of misadventures as well as lively, affecting insights into Cuban survival techniques that show the film maker's love for his country. What emerges is a subsistence roadside economy with no supplies and no work. Tobacco and alcohol seem more available than food, which is secretly and guiltily consumed at clandestine "off the chart" dining enclaves. At some road stops cafes are only for mourners and refreshments have to be ordered in advance.

Doing some black marketeering on the side, the hearse chauffeur takes on board strings of garlic and, on one occasion, to Adolfo's great chagrin, is obliged to make a detour and do double duty as an ambulance for a woman in labor.

The second arm of the story is supplied by a giant tractor-trailer, not so much driven as presided over by gorgeous macho man Mariano (Jorge Perugorria of "Strawberry and Chocolate"), which is taking the same route to Havana as the motorcade. With his sumptuous physique, Mariano's life is as messy, impromptu and hedonistic as Adolfo's is rule-bound and killjoy. (Adolfo calls his wife a "puta" when she buys a floral print dress identical to Aunt Yoyita's). Acting as God's gift to women, Mariano runs into trouble assuaging his lust at every truck stop, all very amusing.

Meanwhile, his companion and advisor Ramon makes some income on the side by jampacking the trailer with people sans wheels and desperate to get themselves, their produce and their livestock to the nearest market.. But--luck wins out, and repeated chance encounters at truck stops with Georgina, Mariano's former professor, eventually lead Mariano to betray his secret crush on her and thereby to fuel the more mushy romantic comedy aspect of the story. Georgina is egged on in matters of the heart by Candido, who acquires a catalytic role in the film. While Yoyita left Guantanamo and became a famous opera singer, Candido, a saxophonist, stayed behind and never fulfilled his ambition of playing in the Symphony Orchestra. Ironically, he now gets to leave, but it's on Yoyita's final voyage.

The itineraries of the two vehicles are entwined about each other in a double helix like the strands of a DNA molecule, with the twin tracks carrying the film's themes of love and death. which richochet off each other in myriad ways, giving the story a rich texture. It's as if by the rekindling of passion in Yoyita, the flame is passed along to Georgina, with Candido the flame keeper. The overlapping and intersecting between the two journeys--and the contrast between the men in Georgina's life--keep plot elements stewing nicely. Alea is a past master at exploring the dramatic potential in contradictions, and the pace of the film is leisurely enough to allow Alea's final meditation on love and death to surface.

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