Cuban cinema deserves better than this DVD set

Cuban Masterworks DVD Collection
Studio: First Run Features
Release Date: 2007-02-20
WorkNameSort: Cuban Masterworks DVD Collection

If you need evidence not to believe everything you read on DVD box art, look no further than First Run Features' should-be-essential Cuban Masterworks Collection. It promises 'Five beautifully restored classic films from Revolutionary Cuba.â?� Beautifully restored, eh? This is flagrant false advertising.

While each title is bolstered by digitally enhanced subtitles, in truth only one film lives up to the DVD format's standard of image quality: 1967's The Adventures of Juan Quin Quin, which also happens to be the best movie in the set. The other four-fifths of the collection contain VHS (or sub-VHS) transfers, with 1981's Cecilia the most execrable example. The picture drops in and out of focus, it's hazy, it's blurry, and every so often it takes on a pink hue, with added problems generated around each reel change. Oh, and the image shakes every so often, as if the bootlegger covertly filming the screen of the movie theater just had the back of his seat kicked. My eyes hurt after looking at it.

What a shame this all is, because a proper introduction to Cuban cinema is long overdue. Prior to this box set, the only Cuban film I'd seen was Tomas Gutierrez Alea's Memories of Underdevelopment (still not on DVD). There's been little written about the country's film industry, and few movies available for casual enjoyment or critical consumption. But important films and auteurs emerged soon after the Cuban Revolution of 1959 and the founding of the ICAIC (Instituto Cubano del Arte y la Industria Cinematográficos).

The so-called Golden Age of Cuban Cinema, fostered by the revolutionary government, soldiered on through the '60s and was spearheaded by three figures: Alea, Julio Garcia Espinosa and Humberto Solas. To its credit, this collection contains works by all three figures, though they're not the filmmakers' most towering achievements.

The Twelve Chairs (1962), based on the same Russian novel Mel Brooks filmed for his Twelve Chairs in 1970, displays the early roots of Alea's merger of formal inventiveness with neorealism and political consciousness, which would come to fruition in Memories of Underdevelopment. He turns a universally appealing comic conceit ' two highly contrasting men on a madcap search for a dozen chairs, one of which contains priceless jewels ' into a Cuba-specific political satire. The laughs keep coming as the situations grow progressively zanier, but as in so many of the movies that defined Cuba's Golden Age, the effects of the revolution were impossible to avoid. Thus we have the clashing sensibilities of young, working-class Oscar (Reynaldo Miravalles) and greedy landowner Hipolito (Enrique Santiesteban), the latter forced to mingle with the proletariat and plow the fields with Communists whenever there's another chair on the horizon.

The Adventures of Juan Quin Quin, too, integrates the politics of the New Cuba into a picaresque screwball comedy about a penniless rogue who, to make ends meet, becomes a circus performer, a bullfighter, an actor in a Passion play and finally a revolutionary. Like the French New Wave films made just years before it, Juan Quin Quin was both of its time and way ahead of it, reiterating the '60s formal zeitgeist of Godard and Co. that would insidiously find its way into music videos and commercials decades later. There are jump cuts, intertitles, thought bubbles and even fourth-wall-breaking dialogue. Sound, too, is a tool for experimentation; in what would be the film's climactic face-off between hero and villain, Espinosa mocks the action by dubbing in sounds from a sporting event. There's a concerted effort to break convention from beginning to end, making Juan Quin Quin a revolutionary film in more ways than one.

After this double dose of frenzied Golden Age gems, I wasn't prepared for the melodrama triple threat of '80s Humberto Solas. The director's 1967 breakthrough, Lucia, would have made more contextual sense with the previous two films, but instead we get Cecilia (a mediocre romance set in the compelling, racially tense times of 19th-century Cuba), Amada (a soap-opera-like snoozer about a politician's wife who has an affair with a young idealist) and A Successful Man, the most effective of the three but not without its flaws.

All three films may be vital viewing for Cuban history buffs, as all three period pieces come to terms with the country's past. But when the male protagonist in Cecilia, trying to express his love to the title character, compares his gushing affectations to those in a bad romance novel, he may as well be talking about Solas' cinema. As tawdry as the almost-parodic love scenes are in Cecilia ' curtains fluttering across naked bodies, lovers feeding watermelon to each other in the bathtub ' the stilted language of rancid romance writing is at its worst in the interminable Amada, a stolid infidelity drama devoid of a pulse.

At least A Successful Man, while hindered by the chatty languor of its Solas predecessors, has the sweep of a Bertolucci or Coppola epic as it expounds upon a 30-year-period of Cuban history from the perspective of two politically divided brothers.

Bonus materials include short (usually under 10 minutes) films about Cuban traditions and key cinematic figures, but they rarely have anything to do with the film they're ostensibly supplementing. Those thin additions, along with the unacceptable video quality that plagues the majority of its films, make The Cuban Masterworks Collection a bit of a bust. While noble in name and intention, it's shamefully poor in execution.