“Forward Dreaming” in Cuban Film: The Work of Tomás Gutiérrez Alea 1

El cine es un sueño, pero un sueño que siempre tiene una llamada de alerta.2


Not since Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov in the USSR in the 1920s had an innovative national cinema unfolded in the context of revolution until the films of post-revolutionary Cuba did so, with directors such as Tomás Gutiérrez Alea (1928-1996), Julio García Espinosa (1926- ) and Humberto Solás (1941-2008). Alea’s oeuvre in particular engages viewers to reflect on the challenges facing Cuban society after 1959, and to think about the way that the lived reality conforms or contrasts with revolutionary ideals. Even after his death in 1996, his close associate Juan Carlos Tabío has carried those ideas forward into the evolving Cuban political, social and cultural landscape. Looking back at Alea’s oeuvre reveals it to be a perceptive and even prescient commentary on issues that are still confronting Cuba today, including democratic reforms, gender relations, and the role of religion.3

Over the course of his 40 years as a filmmaker in Cuba, from 1955 until his death in 1996, Alea wrote critical essays on film in which he situated Cuba’s militant cinema within a dialectic – one that not only pertains to the film’s relation to the evolving society but also demands the participation of the spectator in the construction of meaning. At the same time, the director’s successive works are in dialogue with one another and exhibit intertextual relations with larger currents of film history, particularly neorealism and surrealism (as well as engaging in a “negative dialectics” with Hollywood entertainment cinema). His films are revolutionary in form as well as in content. To appreciate fully what they are saying about Cuban society requires attention to their aesthetics, a task that Annette Rubinstein eloquently sets before us:

What has generally been called Marxist literary criticism in the United States is, with rare exceptions, actually sociological rather than Marxist. That is, it is concerned only with the raw material, the manifest content, of a novel, play or poem, and with the author’s attitude towards these facts.… Unfortunately [this] is not entirely the fault of unfriendly outsiders. All too often communists themselves, in their opposition to formalism, have proclaimed or implied indifference to formal literary values.4

Alea’s aims as a filmmaker are threefold: to comment critically and constructively on the emergent revolutionary society and thereby aid in the process of what Ernst Bloch calls “forward dreaming”5 toward the realization of the stated ideals; to seek the active involvement of the spectator in thinking about how the future goals will be reached; and to forge a new present out of the memory of the past (including the memory of his own previous works). This last goal situates his oeuvre within what Ernst Fischer calls “productive memory”:

To imagine what has not yet been objectified, what is not yet present; to combine things which are not yet mutually related, to join them together and to establish an interaction between them; to draw what is to be from that which is remembered, to overstep the inadequate here-and-now, to make what has never yet been seen, conceived of or noticed creatively visible, conceivable and conscious – that is the imagination’s three-fold manner of working.6

Cuban cinema came into being under an unusual set of political, economic, and social circumstances, as Alea noted in his address to the Association of Third World Studies in 1993. It was, from the beginning, an avowed revolutionary cinema, with an educational mission that Alea describes as consciousness-raising (concientizacíon). Alea and his close ally Julio García Espinosa had studied under Cesare Zavattini at the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia in Rome where they were exposed to post-WWII Italian neorealism, which makes a virtue out of economic necessity by eschewing the familiar narratives and high production values of entertainment cinema. At the start of his cinematic career, Alea would embrace the revolutionary form of neorealism, which he found adaptable to the difficult material conditions prevailing in Cuba. For his part, García Espinosa would express his own take on the neorealist philosophy in his important essay, “For an Imperfect Cinema” in 1969, which Alea summarizes as the call to “put technique in the service of imagination and not the reverse.”7 García Espinosa writes that “A new poetics for the cinema will, above all, be a ‘partisan’ and ‘committed’ poetics, a ‘committed’ art, a consciously and resolutely ‘committed’ cinema – that is to say, an ‘imperfect’ cinema…’ It is not quality which it seeks in an artist’s work. The only thing it is interested in is how an artist responds to the following question: What are you doing in order to overcome the barrier of the ‘cultured’ elite audience which up to now has conditioned the form of your work?”8

In 1960 all aspects of production, distribution and exhibition in Cuba came under the umbrella of the vertically integrated ICAIC (Instituto Cubano del Arte e Industria Cinematográficos), which in turn operated under the US-imposed embargo of Hollywood films that had been the staple in prerevolutionary Cuba. In the absence of Hollywood entertainment cinema, audiences had to get used to seeing “imperfect films” marked by an authentic presentation of Cuban society and also art films from all over the world. Alea has remarked that an important social discovery was made, in that audiences, in time, learned to like those films, suggesting that the taste for Hollywood entertainment is a social construction rather than proof of superiority. The Cuban film scene can be said to have undergone after 1960 a process of decolonization, in terms of both how it was produced and the conditions under which films were shown.9

By his own account, Alea seeks to engage spectators in a dialectic that will encourage reflection. In formal terms, many of his films encourage identification with a character who is faced with choices that are issues within Cuban society and thus may resemble ones with which spectators are already uncomfortably wrestling (some of these have included revolutionary commitment, bureaucratization, gender roles, and attitudes toward sexual preference). Even when he uses humor, Alea aims to unsettle viewers – to present them with an unflattering mirror of themselves and to suggest the possibility for change. As he explains in Dialéctica del Espectador (Dialectics of the Spectator), he seeks to produce a cinema “not of escapism but of dialectical negation, whose goal is the transformation of reality through revolutionary concerns.”10


The first film Alea made after 1959 was Historias de la Revolución (Stories of the Revolution),11 which came out in December 1960, less than two years after the overthrow of Batista. Alea has stated that he modeled its tripartite structure consciously on Roberto Rossellini’s neorealist film Paisà (1946), whose five episodes recount different aspects of WWII in Italy. In the first episode of Alea’s film, set in 1956, the protagonist Alberto indirectly causes the death of his partner Miriam by refusing to remain in the apartment they share after a wounded revolutionary is brought there. “I don’t want complications,” he says, but his nighttime wanderings arouse suspicion and lead the police to the apartment. In the end, after he himself is wounded, he is saved by another man who first repeats this same phrase back to him, but then changes his mind. What this episode illustrates is the split decisions that face the average person in the situation of revolution, when they have to choose between the forces of repression or those of liberation. By presenting the story from the point of view of Alberto, audiences were encouraged to imagine how they would have acted in similar circumstances, and to evaluate the cost of trying to remain on the sidelines of the revolutionary process.

In this film (whose other episodes depict guerrillas in the Sierra Maestra and the subsequent decisive battle of Santa Clara), Alea also introduced an element that would become a signature of his style – the use of documentary footage. Alea describes how the scene of the assault on the presidential palace in the first episode, which included the deployment of tanks, would have been too expensive to recreate for the film. Again, this limitation led to a discovery: “I believe that language, in order to be innovative and motivating, has to be at the same time ‘impure,’ capable of allowing reason and emotion, dream and reality to coexist on the same plane. But there is more to this than a simple iconoclastic impulse; this obsession is marked by a more profound objective: the development of consciousness, the challenge of authenticity.”12

Alea would continue to use documentary footage in many subsequent films. In 1984 he made Hasta Cierto Punto (Up to a Point), which takes up the topic of machismo and the role of women in the workplace. The protagonist Oscar is a filmmaker doing research on gender roles and machismo among dockworkers; his wife is to play the part of Lina whose story is integral to the film Oscar is making. In the course of the narrative, Oscar begins a relationship with Lina and proves himself to be as compromised by machismo as the citizens he is researching. The film is intercut with actual video footage of dockworkers commenting on their work conditions, a move that anchors the fictional story within the authentic experience of those living in the milieu being portrayed. As Michael Chanan remarks, “What passes for a straightforward love story is continually subjected to a form of oblique scrutiny and indirect critique, through the agency of an interpretive community whose presence on-screen is doubled by its counterpart in front of the screen.”13 The film also offers some self-criticism of Cuban cinema, as Lina points out that there are no women in Oscar’s film crew.

Even when documentary footage is not used directly, Alea will add a coefficient of reality by filming in the street with hidden cameras, affixing posters to the filmed backgrounds, and leaving room for spontaneity outside of the prepared script.14 Like the neorealist style that evolved out of the material limitations obtaining in Italy after WWII, spontaneity and invention is the rational solution to having to make do with less than optimal conditions.

It is remarkable that despite Cuba’s many economic setbacks, the decades-long span of Alea’s works never flags in its revolutionary commitment to an imagined future where the difficulties will be resolved. Even in the depths of the Special Period, his criticisms of government practices were mitigated by his appreciation of the gains of the revolution. As he told me, “In the last years, reality has shown us that … there is a high level of corruption, and skepticism has returned. Even so, I believe that there has been an advance in comparison to the situation before the revolution.”

Ironically, Alea’s dialectical approach at first made his works subject to misreading. His first film to achieve international release, Memorias del subdesarrollo (Memories of Underdevelopment, 1968), takes place between the Bay of Pigs invasion (April 1961) and the Cuban missile crisis (October 1962) and presents an alienated bourgeois protagonist who is assailed by feelings of inferiority in relation to Europe and the United States. It was based on a novel of the same name by Edmundo Desnoes published in 1962. In an essay written 10 years after the film’s release, the director expresses his amusement at the critical reaction in the United States, that praised the protagonist Sergio’s lack of commitment to the revolution and overlooked the way that that his attitude is presented critically as a problem – not only for Cuban society for also for himself. In fact the filmmaker considers Sergio to be a tragic figure whose entrapment within the bourgeoisie has killed off his creative spirit and initiative. He rejects his bourgeois origins without being able to identify with the Cuban culture that could supply him with an identity. He is ideologically “underdeveloped.”15 By encouraging identification with Sergio, Alea wanted to unsettle Cuban film spectators, who must come to terms with the contradiction of their own position – the persistence of their own bourgeois attitudes in a revolutionary society. For this reason, the filmmaker argued in 1978 that the film was not outdated – indeed the idea that it would someday seem passé was fervently to be wished.16 One could make the same argument today.

Film form plays an important role in guiding the perception of the spectator, who is encouraged to identify with Sergio through the use of point-of-view shots (showing us the world through the character’s eyes), through the amount of screen time that Sergio occupies relative to other characters, through voice-overs that inform us about his thoughts, and through “objective shots” that situate him in a metaphorical relation to his surroundings. The most often cited of these is the shot of Sergio looking down from the heights of his luxury apartment at the street below through his telescope – an expression of his alienation. More subtle (to the extent that it had to be spelled out by the filmmaker himself) is the framing of the film’s narrative by two scenes of dancing in the street. The first runs under the opening credits and is accompanied by the kind of Cuban music that would seem natural for this scene. The second time however the discordant sounds indicate Sergio’s subjective state: “He is there without being present…he is incapable of inserting himself in the general current of abandon, relaxation, unconcern, joy, and violence. However much he tries, he cannot submerge himself in the sea of ‘his’ people.”17

Memorias del subdesarrollo shows the influence of neorealism in both its form and its content. Alea avoids theatrical lighting; he films in natural surroundings and in the streets, and uses nonprofessional actors. The documentary feel of the film is enhanced by the focus on the characters’ everyday activities and the inclusion of newsreel footage of the Cuban missile crisis. Already here, though, Alea includes some dreams (Sergio’s fantasy of the maid’s baptism) that presage the increasing role that surrealism will play in his films. In this he has always acknowledged his debt to Buñuel. The emphasis is different, however. The Spanish director excoriates stifling bourgeois culture, machismo, and a corrupt political power structure in complicity with the Catholic Church without suggesting any way out. Black humor is a weapon of critique and destruction without any hope of social transformation – Buñuel is essentially an anarchist. In Alea’s films, negative conditions are always balanced by an awareness of their revolutionary opposite. His life-long companion Mirtha Ibarra wrote that he was against “bourgeois values, the petit-bourgeois inheritance of the past, the US administration, the blockade, the invasion of the Bay of Pigs – but also against the abuse of symbols, against laziness, the corruption of officials, bureaucratism, formalism, and triumphalism.” She quotes him as saying that “there is a danger in the Revolution of converting symbols into empty phrases. Therefore I am against that: I am against raised arms, against circles of Martí worship, against banners, against posters, against signs, against the moment when everything turns into sodden paper.”18


The dialectical reversal that is suggested in many of Alea’s films informs some of his middle works such as La Última cena (The Last Supper, 1976). Set in the time of slavery, the narrative depicts a slave owner who invites his slaves to sit at the dinner table with him in an act of religious observance of Easter. On the following day the slaves rebel when the privileges he has promised (e.g. no work on Good Friday, and freedom for one of the elderly slaves) are not honored by the overseer. In order to assert his authority he has the rebel slaves executed and selects the place where their truncated heads are displayed as the site for his future church – a macabre vision of the way the Church is co-opted into supporting violence. In the end the owner disdains to bury the black victims along with the white victims, thus putting the lie to his pretence of equality at the previous night’s repast. The only redemptive images are those of the lone survivor running to freedom and toward the future, intercut with images of galloping wild horses.

On the surface the film appears to pit the promises of the Church against the exigencies of capitalist slave society. One should bear in mind, however, that Cuban film is always made within a political context. Michael Chanan comments that “Politics in Cuban cinema is not a subtext that either the filmmaker or the critic can include or leave out; it is the inevitable and ever-present intertext of the aesthetic.”19 A more political reading would consider that, although the absentee landlord is sympathetic to human values, he wishes to impose his liberality from above and sides with the overseer once the demands come from below. This can be seen as a comment on the leadership policies of the revolution, when self-organized squatting on land in 1959 was prohibited and prosecuted by the revolutionary government.20

When I interviewed Alea in 1993 in the bleakest hours of the “special period” of scarcity following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the director suggested yet another allegorical meaning for the film. It was his view at the time that the positive values of Marxism and well as of Christianity were often deployed to manipulative effect by those in power, in ways that directly contradicted their stated principles. He suggested that the film can be read as a covert critique of the corruption that marred Cuba’s transition to socialism. The exigencies of economic production, as personified in the overseer, conflict with the ideals of equality, initially propounded by the Church and the owner. The owner’s initial offer to seat his slaves at the table would then correspond to what Alea described to us as the initial euphoria at the moment of the revolution, in which everything seemed possible. This was followed, he said, by increasing corruption and hypocrisy. Even though important advances were made in comparison to the years of dictatorship, the material base of society did not improve enough for the full development of the individual.21 Alea’s comments (made almost two decades after the film’s production and under dire economic circumstances) underscore the distinctive relation of the Cuban cinema to the political sphere. The two distinctive and even somewhat incompatible readings offered above underscore the richness of this film as a commentary on the revolutionary process and argue for its continued relevance.

In 1966 Alea made La Muerte de un burócrata (Death of a Bureaucrat), at once an homage to the art of film and a send-up of bureaucrats who prefer their rules over the needs of the people whom they supposedly serve. A worker has died in an accident by falling inside his machine for mass-producing busts of Martí, in a scene reminiscent of Chaplin’s Modern Times. The dead man is buried with his worker’s identity card as a tribute to his patriotism and accomplishments, but the widow needs that card in order to get her pension. The nephew makes the rounds of the bureaucracy (the situation is not dissimilar to that of Kurosawa’s Ikiru) in order to get permission to disinter his uncle and retrieve the ID card. He is sent from one office to another with no success. He then hires a couple of thugs to steal the coffin from the cemetery. When it comes time to rebury the uncle, the cemetery officials refuse the body since its records show that the man has already been buried. There is a confrontation between two families at the cemetery gates, which degenerates into a battle in which wreaths and cakes become weapons (Laurel and Hardy). Within the hapless nephew’s subsequent nightmare, Alea pays tribute to Buñuel with a shot of the coffin being pulled on ropes like the pianos in Andalusian Dog (1928), intercut with other shots that reference Bergman’s Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries. This is after the nephew has been seen hanging from the clock on the outside of a municipal building (the reference is to Buster Keaton) after a surreptitious attempt to enter and stamp his documents with official seals himself. To compound the irony, the nephew’s boss is designing posters and art for an anti-bureaucracy campaign; one of the posters showing a muscular arm smashing bureaucracy (with the slogan “Muerte a la bureaucracia,” death to bureaucracy) even shows up at the cemetery. In the end the nephew bears the image out literally by bludgeoning the cemetery director to death in a rage.

Alea has said that he was disappointed with the audience reaction to this film; in my interview with him in Havana in 1993, he said that he was shocked to happen upon a screening where the spectators were simply laughing and failing to recognize themselves. He was much more satisfied with the reaction two years later to Memorias del subdesarrollo, which he said left the spectators uncomfortable and questioning their own attitudes toward the Cuban revolution.22


Surrealism acts as a liberating force in Alea’s last film, Guantanamera (1995), which he co-directed with Juan Carlos Tabío. Here he challenged himself to expose ludicrous bureaucratic rules without allowing his spectators the safety valve of being able to distance themselves by treating the film as a comedy. Guantanamera contrasts a repressive bureaucracy with a tale of amour fou and ends with an homage to Buñuel’s bitter satire of the Catholic Church in L’Age d’or (1930). Once again death is connected to obstructive bureaucracy, as the film charts the path of a funeral cortège from Guantánamo to Havana. On the side of rigidity and bureaucracy is the funeral director Adolfo, the nephew (by marriage) of Yoyita, an actress from Havana who has died suddenly during a visit to her city of origin in Guantánamo. Adolfo is obsessed with his plan of transferring the casket at the border of each district so that the cost of transportation can be shared between municipalities. Traveling with him is his wife Gina, the niece of the deceased, and Cándido, an older man who kept his love for the dead woman alive despite 50 years of separation. Parallel to this group a truckdriver, Mariano, and his buddy Ramón travel the same route. Mariano is a former college student of Gina’s who is in love with his former teacher; they meet by accident all along the route – an example of the “objective chance” that rules the surrealist world and ensures that lovers will prevail. In the end Adolfo is left standing on a pedestal in the rain, delivering a funeral oration that no one listens to, while the two lovers leave on a bicycle. That final image of Adolfo has two references – one within the film, when Adolfo imagines himself as the subject of the statue in a city square; and another in L’Age d’or. In Buñuel’s scene, an official in a frock coat delivers a speech on “the founding of Rome” while two lovers embrace in the mud and interrupt his speech with their amorous cries. Alea’s film ends on a note of hope, as the two lovers escape the desolate scene; this is more akin to Chaplin’s Modern Times than to Buñuelian pessimism. It presents a “forward dreaming,” a legacy to the Cuba of the future left by Alea, who knew at the time that he was terminally ill. Cándido is haunted by the image of a young girl dressed for a funeral. The first glimpse we get of her is in a photograph that Yoyita and Cándido are looking at. They don’t recognize her, though Yoyita says that she remembers seeing her somewhere. As the film progresses, it seems that this child appears to those that are about to die. She first appears to Cándido as the hearse leaves Guantánamo, standing before a spray-painted sign, “socialismo o muerte,” and then reappears repeatedly after that.

One of the themes of the film is the cycle between birth and death, linked not only to the personal but also to the idea of social renewal. Adolfo’s false ambition to be honored in a statue for his bureaucratic efficiency is mocked. Instead, a banner in one of the towns proclaims, “The time has come to preserve our dreams.” In this context the budding love between Gina and Mariano and a baby born in a hearse in one of the stages of the transport function as a declaration of faith in renewal and positive change on the part of the filmmaker. At the end of his life, Alea expresses his continued commitment to the goals of the revolution even as he delivers a final critique of those who would constrain it within petty rules and regulations. In this context one should also not forget the role of the Guantanamera song that comments several scenes of the film in voice-over. The song about a man spurned by a Guantánamo beauty is one that lends itself easily to the composition of new verses, and has been one of the most popular songs in Cuba since 1929 when it was featured daily on the radio programs of José Fernandez.

In the arc of the narrative, Alea expresses his hope for regeneration in mythical terms as well, turning to Yoruba stories of creation to explain the creator Olofin’s introducing death to the world through the god Ikú and a great flood that regenerated the earth. The film presents this story as a voice-over narration accompanied by shots of torrential rain, flooded wreckage, and the funeral girl again, barely visible as she stands in the niche of a ruined place of worship. These juxtapositions also are part of the film’s surrealism, as they produce a collision between distant conceptualizations of the world and of the place of human life within it.23 Neil Larsen’s perceptive essay on surrealism and Marxism in Latin American literature was the first to demonstrate how montage is used to show the confrontation of modernity with what he calls “the repressed lineage of its own shock-filled past.”24 This is, of course, especially evident in film, which counts montage among its principal effects and building blocks.


The recovery of memory is also one of the themes of Alea’s next-to-last film, Fresa y chocolate (Strawberry and Chocolate, co-directed with Juan Carlos Tabío), which deals poignantly with another Cuban who does not fit comfortably into society. Unlike with the protagonist of Memorias del subdesarrollo, the problem here is not class but sexual orientation. Diego is rejected by his society because he is gay. The vehicle for encouraging audience members to reflect on their own attitudes is provided through David, an idealistic young student who serves as the focus of filmic identification – we see Diego through his eyes.

For instance, when David first goes to Diego’s apartment he is stunned by what he finds. The camera follows his gaze as he encounters a wall of portraits and mementos that are unfamiliar. The furnishings are a vivid testimony to the gay culture that the revolution has suppressed: on the wall are images of the singer Bola de Nieve (Ignacio Villa), the writer Lydia Cabrera (who fled to Miami), José Lezama Lima (the author of Paradiso), and the painter of flamboyant erotic bodies Servando Carbrera. Mixed in with these are Marilyn Monroe, Cuba’s national hero José Martí, Cuban singer Rita Montaner, framed ballet slippers (perhaps belonging to Cuba’s prima ballerina and founder of the Ballet Nacional de Cuba Alicia Alonso), and artifacts of the Yoruba and Catholic religions.25 The case of Lezamo Lima is of particular interest. In the early years of the Revolution, he was appointed director of the department of literature and publications of the National Council. His 1966 novel Paradiso, which described sexual encounters between men, was branded pornographic and counterrevolutionary by the government. He died disgraced by Cuban officialdom in 1976. Thus Alea’s film constitutes an effort at rehabilitation of this major Cuban writer, in whose name a literary poetry prize has been awarded in Cuba since the year 2000.26

In his review of José Esteban Muñoz’s critical study Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity, Kevin Floyd provides a description that applies well to Diego’s behavior, a kind of utopian queer world-making, one in which “utopia takes the form not of pure, abstract negativity, but of performative and aesthetic gestures.”27 Within his four walls, Diego reads the banned Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa (who had signed a petition in support of the jailed dissident Heberto Padilla), warehouses his friend Germán’s religious art, and pins up his cultural heroes. He also behaves in a way that would seem alien to most Cuban revolutionary values. Like Sergio in Memories of Underdevelopment, Diego admires European culture – he proudly serves David tea in French china that once belonged to Spanish aristocrats, reads the English poet John Donne and the Greek poet Constantine Cafavy – but unlike Sergio he embraces Cuban culture as well. This inclusiveness is paralleled in the film’s music track – Diego listens to Maria Callas, but the film’s soundtrack includes the classically inspired “Danzas cubanas” of Frank Fernández (1847-1905) and Ernesto Lecuona (1895-1963) as well as the works of Cuban composers José Urfé, Pablo Milanés, and Adalberto Alvarez.

In the end, though, Diego loses his job because of his support for the religious Christian art of his friend Germán (one of whose plaster busts depicts Karl Marx with a crown of thorns) and so decides to leave the island. The original story by Senel Paz, like the film, implicitly pleads for a more open society and explicitly deals with the issue of whether bourgeois culture can be “re-read” and incorporated within revolutionary working-class values.28 In the short story, Diego mentions that at one point he was sent to the forced labor camp for deviants, the UMAP (Unidades Militares de Ayuda a la Producción or “Military Units for Aid to Production”).29 The “new man” that the revolution was supposed to create is one of the themes of Paz’s story, titled “The Wolf, the Forest, and the New Man.”30 In this allegorical tale David represents revolutionary and idealistic youth that must learn to accept all aspects of being Cuban. This includes all citizens who love Cuba and its revolution, whatever their sexual orientation and religious beliefs. In the film, Diego’s decorated walls are also testimonials of inclusion, a retrieval of cultural memory. David’s acceptance of Diego as they embrace at the end of the film is another “forward dreaming” to a time when reigning prejudices will lose their force. In rehabilitating some of Cuba’s gay cultural figures, this film did in fact contribute to that goal; in his post-screening interview at the Berlin Film Festival in 1994 (where the film won the Silver Bear), Alea described how Cubans lined up for blocks to see the film. Mirtha Ibarra writes that when the film was shown at the Havana film festival in December 1993 (where it was given the highest award), it was applauded by its 3,000-member audience for a full ten minutes.31


While preparing to direct Fresa y chocolate, Alea became ill with cancer. His friend and collaborator Juan Carlos Tabío co-directed Alea’s last two films with him, and subsequently dedicated his own 2000 film Lista de espera (Waiting List) to his friend and collaborator. Like Muerte de un burócrata and Guantanamera, this film pays homage to the European art film that was formative for Cuban post-revolutionary filmmakers, while at the same time playing up the surrealistic comedic mode that characterized Alea’s later films. Tabío’s homage to Alea carried over into the crew he assembled: from Guantanamera, cinematographer Hans Burman, film editor Carmen Frías and production designer Onelio Larralde; from Fresa y chocolate, composer José María Vitier. Jorge Perugorría (Diego in Fresa y chocolate and Mariano in Guantanamera) played the role of Rolando, the picaresque hero who gets ahead by pretending to be blind. As so often in Alea’s oeuvre, Buñuel’s films are referenced. I think it makes sense to consider Tabío’s film in the context of Alea’s oeuvre, as an homage and continuation of his legacy.

As in Guantanamera, the film is about travel – but this time all the protagonists are stuck at a bus stop halfway between Havana and Santiago. The expected buses fail to arrive and the broken-down bus in the station can’t be fixed. One of the women comments that it reminds her of a film she has seen where the protagonists are mysteriously prevented from leaving the house. The reference is to Buñuel’s El Ángel exterminador (Exterminating Angel (1962), which was shown in Cuba in 1963 and awarded top prizes by Cuban critics.32 However Buñuel’s film foregrounds class differences – the servants instinctively desert their master’s mansion before disaster strikes. In Tabío’s film, the travelers take over the bus station, while a subordinate of the stationmaster goes off in a huff to complain to the authorities that proper procedures are not being followed (he resembles the bureaucrats from Muerte de un burócrata and Guantanamera). In the early stages people act selfishly; some even go so far as to eat the stationmaster’s cat. But as the situation evolves, food is shared (and food hoarders exposed), romances bloom (including one between two men), and finally even the faking “blind” man confesses to his subterfuge. In the end everyone starts fixing up the bus station, adding a library and bedrooms, and creating a communal space for dining. When one of them dies, they improvise a casket out of some file drawers and hold a burial. It is perhaps one of the purest cinematic examples of “forward dreaming.” In the words of Ernst Bloch:

Men have always been expected to cut their coat according to their cloth, they learnt to do so, but their wishes and dreams do not comply… Insofar as they are discontented, they consider themselves worthy of a better life. […] Walking upright, this distinguishes men from animals, and it cannot yet be done. It exists only as a wish, the wish to live without exploitation and masters.33

In the end, everyone wakes up from what turns out to have been a collective dream; the stationmaster is relieved to find his cat again, and all are astonished to find the dead man alive and well. Yet something has been learned during the night; one by one the travelers are picked up and taken to their destinations by drivers of vehicles who stop by and voluntarily transport them. Tabío has called his film “an ode to solidarity.”34 More importantly, the dream part of the narrative proposes that grassroots socialism can work better than bureaucratic state control from afar.

In spirit this film is close to the comedies Alea made in 1962, and 1978, Las Doce sillas (The Twelve Chairs) and Los Sobrevivientes (The Survivors). The latter film is a black comedy in which a bourgeois family reverses the situation of Buñuel’s Exterminating Angel by refusing to leave their mansion in an effort to pretend that the revolution hasn’t happened. The younger son declares that they should all start to work, whereupon the mother states that she would rather die than suffer such a “communist” fate. At first the head of the household is able to scare the servants into remaining, but they eventually run off. This film is not commercially available (though some scenes can be found on YouTube), so we have to depend on Alea’s description of what happens next: “As their animals die and their harvest fails, they experience hunger for the first time….in the end they revert to complete savagery. They start to eat one other, while retaining their tablecloths and silver cutlery.”35 Here it is the lack of solidarity that causes disaster – a direct reversal of the situation in Lista de espera.

Las Doce sillas revolves around jewels that a rich woman confesses on her deathbed to have hidden in one of the dining room chairs. Both the local priest and the woman’s son-in-law Hipólito are privy to the secret and compete for the opportunity to find the chair, which has vanished in the expropriation of bourgeois wealth after the revolution. The corrupt priest extorts travel funds from his diocese and preys upon his parishioners, while Hipólito enlists the help of Oscar, his former servant, promising him a share of the loot. Oscar proves himself to be much more resourceful than his former master in tracking down the chairs, which have gone off to several different new owners (among them a hospital, a circus, and a train station). Along the way the conversations between former master and servant illustrate the gains the revolution has brought to the working class, while the member of the owning class persists in believing that his ill-gotten wealth has been stolen from him. Like the bourgeois family in Los Sobrevivientes, Hipólito has never worked with his hands for even a day in his life.

The film progresses as a series of comic gags linked to Oscar’s successive transformations, with the climax coming at the circus as a lion mauls one of the chairs. Finally the two men come upon the last chair, only to find that the jewels were discovered by the revolution and used to build a new community center. Thus the film ultimately sanctions the confiscation of the excessive wealth of the few for the overall improvement of life for the many.

Alea writes that he read the Russian novel by Ilya Ilf and Yevgeni Petrov on which the film is based before the revolution, but had to wait until the time was right to film it. The opening credits first show documentary photographs of the revolution, and then proceed with an animation sequence (accompanied by syncopated music typical of silent films) of the elderly woman hiding her jewels. Formally, Tabío’s Waiting List resembles this early film of Alea’s in its commitment to solidarity and social transformation, along with a comic structure that encompasses a large cast and a series of situations. Oscar’s resourceful fakery (at one point he poses as a counterrevolutionary to extort funds from the gullible) also prefigures that of Rolando (the faking blind man) in the later film. Alea has written that he turned to comedy in 1962 in order to relieve the anxiety he experienced after having been given the responsibility in 1960 to direct the very first feature film of the revolution, Historias de la revolucíon. Along the way he found his own cinematic voice and the style that proved so effective in his subsequent career.


In Alea’s works surrealism returns to its revolutionary past. We should remember that in 1930 its founder André Breton renamed his journal La Révolution surréaliste (The Surrealist Revolution), preferring to call it Le Surréalisme au service de la révolution (Surrealism in the Service of Revolution) from then on. As Walter Benjamin succinctly puts it, the goal of surrealism was “to win the energies of intoxication for the revolution.”36 What I have tried to suggest is that this ideal of progress is also connected to the memory of an ancient dream of mankind. As Bloch writes:

True genesis is not at the beginning but at the end, and it begins only when society and existence become radical, i.e. grasp their own roots. But the root of history is the working, creating human being who reshapes and overhauls the given facts. Once he has grasped himself and established what is his, without expropriation or alienation, in real democracy, there arises in the world something which shines into the childhood of all and in which no one has yet been: homeland.37

The discomfort that Alea wants to induce in his spectators has the purpose of reminding them that mankind has not yet learned to feel “at home” on earth. The filmmaker does not want us to lose sight of that forward dreaming, which lies at the root of every true revolution – the ideal of a secure material existence for all and human fulfillment.


1. I would like to thank Rainer Schultz, Alan West-Durán, and Daniel Noemi Voionmaa for their comments and assistance on this article.

2. “Cinema is a dream, but it’s a dream that always carries a wake-up call.” Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, interview with the author, Havana, June 1993.

3.  See Mayra Espina Prieto, “Looking at Cuba Today: Four Assumptions and Six Intertwined Problems,” Socialism and Democracy 24.1 [special issue, Cuban Perspectives on Cuban Socialism] (March 2010): 95-107.

4. Annette T. Rubenstein, “Fundamental Problems in Marxist Literary Criticism: Form, History and Ideology,” Socialism and Democracy 11:1 (1997), 1.

5. See “Forward dream, sobriety, enthusiasm and their unity” in Ernst Bloch, The Principle of Hope, trans. Neville Plaice et al. (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1996), 1385.

6. Ernst Fischer, “Productive Memory” from Art against Ideology, excerpted in Marxism and Art, ed. Maynard Solomon (Detroit: Wayne State Univ. Press, 1973), 272.

7. Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, “Otro Cine, Otro Mundo, Otra Sociedad” (address to the Association of Third World Studies in 1993), in Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, Volver sobre mis pasos, ed. Mirtha Ibarra (Madrid: Ediciones Autor, 2007), 338.

8. Julio Garciá Espinosa, “For an imperfect cinema,” trans. Julianne Burton, Jump Cut 20 (1979); 24-26.

9. Alea, “Otro Cine, Otro Mundo, Otra Sociedad,” in Alea, Volver sobre mis pasos, 340. Today US films have once more “invaded” Cuba both on television and in the theatres; it would be interesting to learn what effect this has had on local filmmaking practice.

10. Alea, Dialéctica del espectador (Havana: Escuela Internacional de Cine y TV, 2009), 47. Unless otherwise noted, all translations from Spanish are mine.

11. Film titles are given in Spanish; the English title is italicized if the film was released with subtitles.

12. Alea, “Otro Cine, Otro Mundo, Otra Sociedad,” in Alea, Volver sobre mis pasos, 338.

13. Michael Chanan, Cuban Cinema (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 2004), 405.

14. Alea, interview with the author, Havana, 1993.

15. Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, “Memorias de Memorias,” in Dialéctica del Espectador, 112.

16. Alea, “Memorias de Memorias,” 114.

17. Alea, “Memorias de Memorias,” 104-5.

18. Mirtha Ibarra, “Su vida en mi memoria,” in Alea, Volver sobre mis pasos, 381.

19. Chanan, Cuban Cinema, 12.

20. I am grateful to Rainer Schultz for this insight.

21. Alea, interview with the author.

22. Interview with the author.

23. For more on this syncretism, see Aurelio Alonso, “Religion in Cuba’s Socialist Tradition,” Socialism and Democracy 24:1 (2010): 147-59.

24. Neil Larsen, “Preselective Affinities: Surrealism and Marxism in Latin America,” Socialism and Democracy 14:1 (Spring/summer 200):27.

25. Cuba expert Alan West-Durán has generously supplied me with the information about the images and artifacts on the walls of Diego’s apartment.

26. www.enotes.com/jose-lezama-lima-criticism/lima-jose-lezama; Source: Contemporary Literary Criticism, ©1997 Gale Cengage. Consulted 10/4/12.

27. Kevin Floyd, “The Importance of Being Childish: Queer Utopians and Historical Contradiction,” in Joseph G. Ramsey, ed., Culture and Crisis (Works and Days; Cultural Logic, 30 [2012]): 333.

28. On this topic, see my essay, “The Aesthetics of Resistance: Thoughts on Peter Weiss,” Socialism and Democracy 20:2 (July 2006): 69-77.

29. The UMAP, a kind of alternative military service for gays and pacifist religious groups, was in place for three years (1965-68) before it was dismantled.

30. Senel Paz, El Lobo, el Bosque y el Hombre Nuevo (Santi Spíritus, Cuba; Ediciones Luminarias), 2011.

31. Ibarra, “Su vida” (note 18), 389.

32. “Seleccíon de Cine,” Revolucíon (17 December 1963), quoted in Polémicas culturales de los 60, ed. Graziella Pogolotti (Havana: Editorial Letras Cubanas, 2006), 160-63.

33. Bloch, Principle of Hope, 1365-67 passim.

34. Juan Carlos Tabío, interview, Lista de Espera DVD, Ó Tornasol Films 2000 (Wellspring Media 2004).

35. Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, “Los Sobrevivientes,” in José Antonio Évora, Tomás Gutiérrez Alea (Madrid: Ediciones Cátedra, 1996), 47.

36. Walter Benjamin, “Surrealism: the last snapshot of the European intelligentsia,” in Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, Vol. 2 (1927-1934), trans. Rodney Livingstone et al. (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1999), 215.

37. Bloch, Principle of Hope, 1375-6.

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