Tomas Gutierrez Alea's final film shares with the late Cuban director's Letters from the Park (a sweetly lyrical film based on the Gabriel Garcia Marquez story about a man who ghostwrites love letters) and Strawberry and Chocolate a tone of wistful romanticism. Like a Garcia Marquez novel, Guantanamera, which screened here last year at the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival, plays like a modern-day fairy tale, one in which love transforms the characters' lives. As the characters travel across dusty villages and tropical vegetation, the film also resembles a road movie in the sense that they journey both physically and emotionally to freer states; yet because the story takes place in Cuba, where the whim of a state employee can affect something as organic as ritual burial, they never truly transcend the law of the land.
Instead they experience an emotional awakening that enables them to transcend the stifling expectations of the system. The protracted funeral procession serves as an apt metaphor for the gradual demise and internment of obsolete personal identities. While it maintains a distinctly Cuban look, Guantanamera tells the kind of universal story common to Garcia Marquez's writings and Gutierrez Alea's later films. It does so at a studied pace that grants the viewer enough emotional space to imbibe and savor its fanciful romantic tale at a deliberate rate.
In the film, Aunt Yoyita (Conchita Brando) returns to eastern Guantanamo 50 years after she abandoned her hometown and her first love, Candido (Raul Eguren), for a successful acting career. Reunited with Yoyita, Candido confesses his undying love, and his thoughtful reminiscence stirs such paroxysms of joy and passion in her that Yoyita promptly dies in his arms. Together with Georgina (Mirtha Ibarra) -- Yoyita's admiring niece, who like Candido appreciated her aunt's aliveness -- he mourns the loss.
Georgina's husband Adolfo (Carlos Cruz) works for the state bureaucracy; hoping to advance his career, he has devised a plan to cut Cuban fuel consumption that entails transferring coffins into a new hearse at each town along the way to the burial site. Yoyita's casket is to be driven from Guantanamo to Havana under the new system, accompanied by Georgina, Adolfo, Candido, and a driver. Coincidentally, a truck driver and former student of Georgina, Mariano (Jorge Perugorria), embarks along the same route, and the two meet at various points along the path.
At one point Georgina's compassion for an expectant mother leads her to drive back to the hospital, against Adolfo's protestations over the lost time that will foil his meticulously calculated journey. Mariano drives to the same hospital to minister to his truck-driving partner, the victim of a shoe thrown by one of Mariano's women friends. While he was her pupil, Mariano had left an affectionate letter for Georgina; though he lacked the courage to ever pursue her, a tender flirtation lingers. Now, while his advances offend the married Georgina, she secretly savors his respect and appreciation for her. Like Eguren's Candido, Ibarra's Georgina emanates passion and sincerity.
Ibarra made her first film with Gutierrez Alea, to whom she remained married for 22 years, until his death last April. Co-writer and -director Juan Carlos Tabio -- who partnered with Gutierrez Alea in 1982 and collaborated in his films thereafter -- eschews overemphasizing Candido's and Georgina's exuberance through an excess of closeups, thus allowing the two to actualize their roles in a more understated way.
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The caravan plods along, and Adolfo's judgmental inflexibility and ambitious pettiness increasingly grate on Georgina. Like Yoyita -- who herself wore a sweeping floral sundress Georgina had demurely declined because her husband would disapprove -- Candido goads Georgina to turn away from the strictures of life with Adolfo, embrace her desire, and express the vivacity and effervescence she shared with Yoyita. As Adolfo bumbles and abrades, Mariano proves his steadfast devotion and unadulterated connection to Georgina. And in the course of the voyage, the warm sentimentality and honesty embodied in Georgina, Candido, and, ultimately, Mariano, triumph over the oppressive rules and logic of the insentient Adolfo. Georgina finally dons the sundress, lets her hair down, and allows her desires -- personal and professional -- to flourish in spite of Adolfo's protestations.
Guantanamera strays even farther afield from Memories of Underdevelopment, the director's groundbreaking 1968 film about an intellectual adrift in postrevolutionary Cuba, than did Strawberry and Chocolate, a romantic film of unfulfilled yearning whose characters lock ideological horns throughout the dialogue. Unlike the self-involved but ultimately conciliatory characters of Strawberry and Chocolate, Adolfo, an appendage of the system, comes across almost like a buffoon: His misguided plan results in coffin mixups and ultimately doesn't save the state enough to justify the effort.
While the film clearly impels Georgina to leave repression behind and to express the warmth she so naturally exudes, Guantanamera expands Strawberry and Chocolate's tale of people who love in spite of oppressive politics and so allows its characters to embody not just their true desires but their true, vital selves. Like the more copious selves who emerge, phoenixlike, from the funereal narrative, Guantanamera resonates with the director's ardor and enthusiasm. Though not his most stringent effort, the film represents the director at his most sanguine and tender -- a respectable legacy and a touching commemoration of a director whose vigor could no more be suppressed than could the characters of Guantanamera.
Co-written and co-directed by Tomas Gutierrez Alea and Juan Carlos Tabio; with Ral Eguren, Mirtha Ibarra, Carlos Cruz, Jorge Perugorria, and Conchita Brando.