Wednesday, June 9, 2021



Director Humberto Solás

Cameraman Jorge Herrero on the set


LUCÍA                       A                                                                                                                Cuba  (160 mi)  1968  d: Humberto Solás

The woman’s role always lays bare the contradictions of a period and makes them explicit… Lucía is not a film about women; it’s a film about society.  But within that society, I chose the most vulnerable character, the one who is most transparently affected at any given moment by contradictions and changes.       —Humberto Solás

A remarkably stylish historical film that is easily the best film seen in years, a stirring tribute to the country’s 100-year struggle for independence, told in three different historical periods featuring a different woman in each segment named Lucía, using a completely different cinematic style in each, yet the vast, epic scope of the film is a harrowing journey that can be shockingly intense, yet delivers such an extraordinary range of cinematic expression that there are few films that can compare, suggesting what matters is a continuing dialogue between the past and the present.  Largely due to the American embargo on Cuba following the Castro revolution, distribution of Cuban films were curtailed at the time, so this film remains criminally underseen.  However a recent restoration on the 50-year anniversary has led to widespread home video availability, yet this film deserves to be seen in theaters, as the astonishing camera style is simply unparalleled.  After Castro came to power, one of the first things he did was establish the Cuban Film Institute, which produced Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s MEMORIES OF UNDERDEVELOPMENT (1968) and then this film, both made in the same year and both recently restored, arguably the two greatest films to ever come out of Cuba.  Only 26 when he made this film, at the time the most expensive Cuban film ever made, Solás is one of the few directors to place women into major historical context, not just symbolically, but as full-fledged participants living in a period of drastic social and political change, where their romantic involvement is directly influenced by surrounding historical events, including oppressive circumstances that parallel the emerging class struggle.  Many of the most striking cinematic features on display take on renewed dramatic power due to the significance of the historical events being depicted, where the distinguished black and white camerawork by Jorge Herrero is simply in a class by itself, reminiscent of Vadim Yusov, a virtuoso who collaborated with Tarkovsky’s early period, like the immaculate composition in ANDREI RUBLEV (1966), or Sergei Urusevsky’s dizzyingly subjective camerawork in Mikhail Kalatozov’s The Cranes Are Flying (Letyat zhuravli) (1957) as well as the deliriously innovative SOY CUBA (1964).  For the first two sections, the composer Leo Brouwer adapts symphonic themes from Schumann and Chopin, European composers that are reflections of colonial culture, while the final section makes brilliant use of Cuban music.  Opening in Havana’s aristocracy in 1895, with a camera that’s never still, the exaggerated, bleached-out white look filmed in overexposure resembles a silent picture, with distorted movements and expressionistic effects, plenty of melodramatic hysteria, while given that Telenovela style of Mexican or South American soap operas. 

Written by Solás, Julio García Espinosa, and Nelson Rodríguez (also the film editor), Raquel Revuelta is Lucía, a child of the wealthy land-owning elite, the colonial aristocracy, part of the overly spoiled and pampered ruling class living in a frivolous atmosphere of excessive opulence, having all the advantages, with the women spending their idle time gossiping and wasting away their time, as they have literally nothing to do, as others do all the work.  Set against the backdrop of the Cuban War of Independence against Spain, the men are largely absent doing the fighting, including Lucía’s brother, who is in hiding, leaving marital prospects at an all-time low, so when Lucía is approached by a distinguished and debonair Spanish businessman, Rafael (Eduardo Mouré), she delights in his flattering attention.  While proclaiming to be non-political, he’s a welcome addition into the family, or so it seems, until rumors fly that he has a wife and family back in Spain, putting a stop to their affair, but it heats up again when they meet in secrecy, where she is easily overcome by male domination and raw physical attraction, allowing herself to be seduced in what resembles an operatic parody of heightened passion, yet inadvertently reveals the secret whereabouts of the rebel soldiers, including her brother.  Posing as a lover’s hideaway, the couple retreats into the seclusion of the family coffee plantation, an idyllic mountainside retreat in a tropical rain forest where she is unceremoniously dropped from his horse as he quickly launches an attack on the rebels, resulting in dynamic war footage that feels inspired by the psychological madness of Orson Welles’ battle sequence from Chimes at Midnight (Campanadas a Medianoche) (1966).  What’s viscerally striking is the director’s use of black peasants riding horseback naked (the Mambises), waving machetes, charging into battle to counter the Spanish attack, resulting in horrible images of unending mayhem and slaughter.  The stark depiction resembles the Indians in John Ford cavalry films, the difference being they are not demeaning racist caricatures but full-fledged heroes, depicted with admiration, playing a part in the nation’s liberation.  An explosive mixture of flamboyant styles and attitudes, a backstory is revealed by a friend, intercutting flashback sequences of nuns blessing the dead on the battlefield, only to be viciously attacked and raped by Spanish soldiers, one of whom was Fernandina (Idalia Anreus), who is now the town madwoman, seen proclaiming various curses, exhorting Cuba to awaken from its colonized slumber, viewed as a laughingstock by the aristocracy.  But she’s the one character who understands the full extent of Lucía’s betrayal, responsible for a massacre that she helplessly witnesses, leading to the death of her own brother, while also driving her to madness, both victims of colonial violence, seen embracing at the end, where Fernandina’s rape mirrors the Spanish rape and plunder of the nation.

Easily the most conventional of the three, the second segment resembles a more restrained European art film, with gorgeously composed close-ups and a camera that rarely moves at all.  Eslinda Núñez is Lucía in 1932, an educated middle-class woman working at a tobacco factory, narrating the story in flashback as her memories play out as vignettes, where she and her mother are moved away from town by her father due to the outbreak of violence during the reign of Cuban dictator Gerardo Machado.  Retreating to a secluded house, Lucía happens to see the late-night clandestine arrival by boat of a wounded man who is quickly moved to an abandoned house.  Curious at what she witnessed, she explores the boarded up home, discovering a young revolutionary stowed away inside, Aldo (Ramón Brito), where a passionate romance ensues.  Caught up in his beliefs, their lives consist of targeted raids on the police, demonstrations on the street urging the ousting of Machado (numerous police murders and assassinations were attributed to the targeting of his critics), and their euphoric happiness when he’s overthrown.  But the establishment of a new government is brokered by the American Ambassador, where they’re horrified to discover the new government is just as corrupt as the old government, viewed as a glamor destination by the super wealthy, as reflected by a privileged, wealthy class that openly parades their ostentatious decadence, with American-owned casinos standing in stark contrast to abundant neighborhood poverty in the crowded barrios.  This section reveals constantly changing locations in Havana, government buildings, bars, beaches, theaters, high-class brothels, and working-class living quarters.  While they are happily in love with each other and have the opportunity to settle down, particularly after she announces her pregnancy, but they are disturbed by what they see.  An extended drinking scene with his friend Antonio (Rogelio Blaín) and his wife Flora (Flora Lauten) plays out in melodramatic fashion, literally exploding with tensions, bordering on hysteria, agonizing over the consequences, with one couple just wanting a return to family life, while Aldo and Lucía refuse to go along with the status quo, reaffirming a commitment to revolutionary action, though women are largely marginalized.  This exchange where the personal becomes the political is unusual, as what’s in the family’s best interests rarely coincides with a need to create more political turmoil, sacrificing the security of love and romance for the pursuit of one’s beliefs, particularly when acting alone, disconnected from other like-minded groups.  The sacrifice is extreme, viewed as nihilistic, as Aldo is killed, with Lucía wandering the streets alone afterwards, observed in a long shot under a bridge and then in close-up, staring directly into the camera, capturing the full effects of her existential dilemma, filled with sadness and a sliver of hope, as her unborn child becomes symbolic of the future, and perhaps the birth of a new Cuba.     

The final segment is set in Castro’s post-revolutionary Cuba of the 60’s, opening with shots of workers in the sugar cane fields, where blacks and whites are truly integrated together, even taken for granted, as one integral community, which acts as a Greek chorus here, where the frivolity reveals characters acting more spontaneously, a reflection of their own liberation, where Angelica (Teté Vergara) and Flavio (Flavio Calderín), a black revolutionary couple, head the women and men’s labor section respectively and always provide revolutionary context, yet this is no cliché’d idealization, shot in a cinéma vérité style, offering a sense of energized vitality and a unique sense of instability, unafraid to acknowledge unanswered questions or unresolvable social problems, as some deeply rooted prejudices have still not been completely eradicated.  Adela Legrá is Lucía, a free-spirited mixed-race mulatto who is one of the workers in the fields, where she accepts a ride from a truck after a long walk in the sweltering tropical heat carrying a heavy load.  Driving the truck is Tomás (Adolfo Llauradó), a brash yet likable cigar-smoking worker who likes what he sees, where they are soon married, teased about their extended honeymoon by friends and neighbors, as they are never seen leaving the house.  However, things quickly take a turn for the worse, as he’s an overbearing machismo husband who is something of a male chauvinist buffoon, demanding total obedience, no questions asked, refusing to allow her to work, refusing to allow her out of the house, even to visit her own mother, locking the doors and windows shut, in effect locking her inside as a prisoner, believing the husband’s word is law, absurdly claiming he is the revolution.  Revolutionary beliefs are constantly challenged, especially when a schoolteacher from Havana arrives as part of the rural literacy drive aimed to spread education among the rural poor, as Lucía is illiterate, working with and living with the family, which drives Tomás crazy, believing he is the master of his own house, but he’s pushed by the community to allow it, continually hovering over them with suspicion, where a patriarchal system is still subjugating women to second class.  Witness to his abusive behavior, the schoolteacher urges her to stand up for herself, accentuating the developing political consciousness of women, as the problem with machismo is that it undermines a woman’s chance of self-fulfillment, where words are empowerment.  Accordingly, the first words she learns to write (spelled wrong) are “I’m leaving.  I’m not a slave.”  Tomás chases after her, while a crowd of female workers protects her, where they are still squabbling at the end, with Lucía demanding she be allowed to work and love, not one or the other, both still wrestling by the sea, their stand-off observed by a young girl tending goats, perhaps the next Lucía, who finds their stalemate amusing, offering suggestions of hope.  Among the more ingenious ideas in this final segment is intermittently using the song Guantanamera, sung by Joseito Fernández, for a brilliantly improvised satiric narration, a politicized, feminist version, telling the story of this ridiculously old-fashioned marriage where the husband is stubborn as a mule, eventually becoming a hilarious battle of the sexes where both are standing up for their own rights and not backing down to the other, suggesting the revolution is a gradual emancipation, an ongoing work still in progress.  Cuban music adds extraordinary texture to this film, like the sounds of Benny Moré, Benny More - Santa Isabel de las Lajas (HQ Audio) - YouTube (3:25) or Beny Moré - Conocí la paz. El cubanísimo Bárbaro del Ritmo canta al amor y a la playa de Varadero. YouTube (3:08), or Orquesta Aragon - Naranjo y Lucas YouTube (3:03), part of the island’s rich tradition, adding enhanced personality and a unique flavor of the land, becoming a beautiful ode to the island.    

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