Enduring memories

The Cuban master film-maker Tomás Gutiérrez Alea trod a fine line, supporting the revolution but ins

By the time the Cuban director Tomás Gutiérrez Alea died in 1996 he was widely regarded, at home and abroad, as the doyen of Cuban cineastas, and over the next few years several Cuban film-makers, established figures and newcomers alike, dedicated new films to his memory. For some, he had been a personal mentor. For all of them he was a role model, for his commitment to the revolution's ideals, combined with his criticism of its failures.

His penultimate film, Strawberry and Chocolate (1994), was the first Cuban picture with a gay character as its central protagonist, and the first to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign-Language Film, but his international reputation dates back to the appearance in 1968 of Memories of Underdevelopment, which was widely greeted as a brilliant contribution from an unexpected source to the "new wave" cinema of the day.

Memories is a very odd film to have come out of a third-world revolution in that famous year, for the protagonist, Sergio - beautifully portrayed by Sergio Corrieri, who died in February this year - is not a revolutionary, but a bourgeois misfit. It is also a film free of political rhetoric, which offers instead an astute commentary on the Cuban Revolution's contradictions. This, however, is criticism from within and from the left, and not, as supposed by some influential critics abroad, that of a Soviet-style dissident. Whatever they thought, the American critics loved the film and gave it an award. But when Alea - who was not a member of the Communist Party - was invited to New York to receive it in 1974, Washington refused him a visa because it considered him an apologist for Fidel Castro.

The truth is rather different. Alea was a loyal supporter who made awkward noises about the problems and dangers of power, from which the artist, he thought, should maintain his or her distance. There is a scene in Memories where an irreverent remark by Sergio is juxtaposed with an image of Fidel. In fact, there are several such moments in various of his films. In a touching memoir recently published in Spain by Mirtha Ibarra - Alea's wife and the female lead in his last few pictures - she tells us that he always resisted the suggestions sometimes made by the ICAIC, the Cuban national film institute that employed him, and of which he was a founding member, that such things were best avoided. He refused to cut them out, in effect insisting on the right to final cut. Memories was a film that made people nervous, but it was released without further demur when it met with the approval of the then president of Cuba, Osvaldo Dorticós. And then Alea discovered that, among the public the film was made for, ordinary cinema-goers were so intrigued that they were going back to see it a second or even a third time.

Memories was Alea's fifth feature film and confirmed him as the foremost director at Cuba's new film institute, which had been set up im mediately after the revolution by Castro's friend Alfredo Guevara. Guevara was a communist who had worked in Mexico as an associate producer for Luis Buñuel. He defended cinema as art, against the orthodox communist line, which thought of it primarily in terms of propaganda, and used his friendship with Castro to ensure the institute's autonomy from external censorship. It probably would have been difficult to get Memories made otherwise, but here it was par for the course. The result of the institute's independence was that 1960s Cuba produced a stream of highly inventive films, very low-budget and extremely agile, as the excitement of the revolution stimulated film-makers' imaginations.

In the early 1950s, Alea trained in Rome at the Centro Sperimentale, and there imbibed the spirit of neorealism and the principle of direct and unadorned encounter with everyday reality. By the time of Memories, he had worked neorealism through and put behind him a couple of social comedies, and was anxious to find another way of getting at reality. Based on a novella by Edmundo Desnoes, who collaborated on the script and appears in the film as himself (he then went back and rewrote the novel), Memories takes the narrative form of a diary-cum-scrapbook by a would-be writer who stands outside the political process but declines to abandon his country like his wife and friends. In an ironic and exemplary moment of cinematic reflexivity, when Sergio visits a film director at the ICAIC (Alea himself, of course), the director describes the film he is making and that we are now watching as "a collage with a little bit of everything". Indeed, he incorporates newsreel, photographs, speeches and a tape recording alongside live events, filmed in the manner of cinéma vérité, inserting real people into the fictional world and fictional characters into reality (like Andrzej Wajda a dozen years later in Man of Iron).

The result is to give the film an open and seemingly disarticulated language. It also placed Alea firmly in the vanguard of Latin American directors, such as Brazil's Glauber Rocha and Bolivia's Jorge Sanjinés, both known for their combination of political and aesthetic radicalism - the confluence of two avant-gardes. Unlike the novelists of the Latin American literary boom, their films did not achieve lasting international popularity - not even on the art-house circuit, where tastes were more sedate, shall we say, and political militancy was in favour with neither the distributors who controlled the trade nor the even more conser vative exhibitors.

In Cuba itself, conditions became difficult politically as well as economically. The literary critic and screenwriter Ambrosio Fornet would call the first five years of the 1970s "el quinquenio gris" - the five grey years - when the conservative wing of the Communist Party was in control and demanded a populist cultural policy. Internal criticism was discouraged in order, according to the phrase of the day, "not to offer arms to the enemy". (There were victims: people didn't get sent off to gulags, but they sometimes lost their privileged jobs as intellectuals and had to work their way back into favour.) Alea completed only three feature films in the course of that decade, and for the first two he reached for historical episodes that could serve as allegorical tales.

Filming in colour for the first time, Alea made The Last Supper (1976), a subtle and ironic satire on the religious hypocrisy of an 18th-century plantation owner towards his slaves, set in a time just after the Haitian uprising. It enjoyed relative international success (the film even ran in the West End, at the old Academy Cinema in Oxford Street). In A Cuban Fight Against Demons four years earlier, he had reached back even further, to 1659, with a story about smugglers, hellfire sermons and Afro-Cuban shamans. Visually, this is his most experimental work, a vertiginous experience with its constantly swirling hand-held camera and extraordinary soundtrack, a film that pushes at the edges of the cinematic idiom of the day, technically and aesthetically.

It was a success with neither the public, which found it too bleak, nor the Party, which couldn't see why anyone should be so interested in religion - which is perhaps precisely why it is time for its revival. When we searched for a print to show at a retrospective a few years ago, we couldn't find one. At first, staff at the film vaults in Havana couldn't even find the negative. The archives had fallen into disorder in the early 1990s, when the economy collapsed under the impact of the dissolution of Comecon, the communist trading bloc. With frequent power cuts in Havana, the dehumidifiers in the vaults broke down and the reels started to deteriorate. Then when the film laboratories were damaged in a hurricane and staff had to move the cans, they lost track of what went where. Finally, however, a print turned up, and we arranged to bring it to London to investigate its condition.

When the cans were opened, the film smelled quite horrid - the East German-manufactured stock had contracted vinegar syndrome and was not projectable. Nevertheless, it features at the Barbican on 12 July in a day devoted to Alea (including The Last Supper), when a fund will be launched to support the conservation of Cuban films. The restoration of the print, and its release next year on DVD, have been made possible by the combined generosity of the Barbican, Roehampton University and, above all, João Sócrates de Oliveira of PresTech Laboratories.

"Memories of Underdevelopment" is in cinemas from 11 July. Details of the Barbican's Cine Cuba season are at: http://www.barbican.org.uk. Mirtha Ibarra will be present at some of the screenings.

Michael Chanan is the author of "Cuban Cinema" (University of Minnesota Press, 2004)

This article first appeared in the 07 July 2008 issue of the New Statesman, British childhood