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Cuba's greatest and best-known director, Tomas Gutierrez Alea fell in love with cinema at an early age, began as a documentarian much influenced by Italian neo-realism, and fully came into his own as an artist during Fidel Castro's regime. Over the years, he has evinced a fondness for both historical and contemporary fables, invariably politically pointed and satirical, their flights into absurdity showing the influence of Luis Bunuel. An ardent supporter of the revolution which dispatched the despotic Fulgencio Batista and brought Castro to power, Alea has painted a more complex portrait of Cuba in his cinema than the rest of the world has generally been willing to conceive. The documentary impulse has remained, yet it is used to constantly scrutinize contemporary Cuba. Indeed, Alea has made some gutsy critiques of the socioeconomic and political realities of his land, as he ponders the persistence of a petty-bourgeois mentality in a society supposedly dedicated to the plight of the working poor.
Born to a fairly well-off family, Alea was sent to college in Havana to follow in his father's footsteps and become a lawyer. At about the same time he entered school, though, he acquired an 8mm camera and made two short films, "Un fakir" and "La caperucita roja/Little Red Riding Hood" (both 1946). Several years later, he collaborated with fellow student (and future film great) Nestor Almendros on a short Kafka adaptation they named "A Common Confusion" (1950). Upon graduation, Alea journeyed to Italy to study film directing for two years during the crest of neo-realism at the famed Centro Sperimentale de Cinematografia. He returned to Cuba in 1953 and joined the radical "Nuestro Tiempo" cultural society, becoming active in the film section, working as a publicist and aligning himself with Castro's fight against the Batista regime.
In 1955, Alea co-directed with Julio Garcia Espinosa, another society member, the 16mm short "El Megano/The Charcoal Worker," a semi-documentary about exploited workers, acted by nonprofessionals from the locales in which it was shot. The film was seized by Batista's police because of its political content. Soon after the Cuban Revolution in 1959, Alea co-founded (with Santiago Alvarez) the national revolutionary film institute ICAIC ("Instituto del Arte y Industria Cinematografica"). He promptly made a documentary "Este tierra nuestra/This Land of Ours" (1959), full of hope for the new government's plan to help the poor through agrarian reform, and has remained a pillar of the organization ever since.
Alea's diverse creative personality has led him to experiment with a broad range of styles and themes. His first feature, "Stories of the Revolution" (1960), employs a neorealist style to present three dramatic sketches depicting the armed insurrection against Batista. Alea's relatively straightforward approach to film style, however, would change, altered not only through his appropriation of Hollywood and art cinema stylistics but also by his increasingly personal attempts at self-expression. "A Cuban Fight Against the Demons" (1971), for example, the film in which he first worked with regular cinematographer Mario Garcia Joya, comes across as the prelude to a period Alea has described as full of personal and artistic instability as much as it does an aggressive allegorical portrait of church and state corruption. The director's later "Letters from the Park" (1988) is more of a twilight work, exploring the romantic period piece as a scribe meets a diverse cross-section of society via his talents at letter writing. The finest of Alea's historical films, "The Last Supper" (1976) continued to highlight his versatility, drawing on Afro-Cuban musical motifs and the literary style of magic realism to recreate an 18th-century slave revolt.
Alea has also made several satiric comedies that explore the legacy of bourgeois society in post-revolutionary Cuba. The madcap adventure "The Twelve Chairs" (1962), a film tale also told by Russian filmmakers and by Mel Brooks, satirizes greed and bureaucracy as a lingering post-revolutionary bourgeois, his roguish manservant and a corrupt priest hunt for a chair concealing priceless diamonds. The Hollywoodian black comedy "Death of a Bureaucrat" (1966) cites not only Bunuel but also Mack Sennett and Laurel and Hardy as it criticizes, at an early point in the Castro regime, the administrative muck of the political system. (Alea reused the gallows humor of the bureaucracy connected with burying a corpse for his road picture "Guantanamera," which began to appear at festivals in 1995 and 1996.) In "The Survivors" (1979), an aristocratic family devolves from civilization to savagery; using a metaphor found in many films from poor countries, the family resorts to cannibalism in trying to remain isolated from the Revolution.
The stresses and strains of a revolutionary society were explored in several dramatic works set in contemporary Cuba, among them "Memories of Underdevelopment" (1968) and "Up to a Certain Point" (1984). "Memories," Alea's masterpiece and arguably the best-known Cuban film ever made, brilliantly blends documentary and drama to create an extremely witty yet sensitive portrait of a restless, oversexed, politically uncommitted intellectual as he meanders through the early days of the Revolution. The latter film is, in some ways, a continuation of the former, as documentary filmmakers attempt to examine lingering machismo among dockworkers, eventually discovering that the Revolution's goals for changes in consciousness have succeeded only "up to a certain point."
Alea returned yet again to the nexus between the sexual and the political with the best-known Cuban film of the 90s, "Fresa y Chocolate/Strawberry and Chocolate" (1993). The story of the unusual friendship which develops between a naive believer in Castro's contemporary version of communism and a more experienced, gay critic of the regime was widely praised and just as widely attacked. Some found it atypically gentle for Alea and read its gay lead as a cover-up of Castro's horrifying treatment of homosexuals, while others thought it needlessly provocative in its characterizations; such divergent responses only testify to the complexity typical of Alea's tapestries. In 1994, "Strawberry and Chocolate" became the first Cuban film to receive an Oscar nomination as Best Foreign Film.
Alea has written or co-scripted all his features and, in accordance with ICAIC's collective approach to filmmaking, has served as advisor on two of the institute's most stylistically innovative films: "The Other Francisco," directed by Sergei Giral, and "De cierta manera/One Way or Another" (both 1974), directed by Sara Gomez. Alea has been less active in filmmaking in the 80s and 90s, and Juan Carlos Tabio has co-directed several of the aging master's recent films. He has, though, written a book of film theory, "Dialectica del espectador" (1982), and continued to inspire a new generation of sophisticated and politically committed artists.
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