Cuba's most widely known and beloved director, Tomas Gutierrez Alea (known in Cuba as "Titon"), earned a law degree at the University of Havana while concurrently making his first films. He went on to study at the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia in Rome, and the influence of Italian neorealism is evident in El Megano (The charcoal worker), a film he made in collaboration with Julio Garcia Espinosa in 1955 after returning to Cuba. El Megano had a seminal role in the beginning of the politicized movement known as New Latin American Cinema, taking its place at the forefront of attempts by Latin American filmmakers to explore the potential political impact of the medium on social issues close to home.
A fervent supporter of the 1959 revolution, Alea was one of the founders of the Instituto Cubano del Arte e (la) Industria Cinematograficos (ICAIC). His substantial body of work describes the nuances and contradictions of everyday life in socialist Cuba. Alea spoke frankly about the reality of the Cuban revolution with all of its idiosyncrasies, citing the importance of intellectual critique in ongoing social change. His films address complex political realities, an absurdly convoluted bureaucratic process, and the persistence of reactionary mentalities in a society that had rededicated itself to the fulfillment of progressive ideals.
The warmth, vitality, and complexity of Alea's films challenge the stereotype of communist cinema as rote propaganda. Alea called for a ''dialectical cinema'' that would engage the viewer in an active, ongoing conversation about Cuban life.
He explored a wide range of genres and styles throughout his long career, making documentaries, comedies, and historical and contemporary dramas. His historical pieces Una Pelea cubana contra los demonios (A Cuban Fight Against Demons, 1972) and La Ultima cena (The Last Supper, 1976) are among the finest examples of
Cuba's many notable films in the genre. Alea's comedies Las Doce sillas (The Twelve Chairs, 1960), La Muerte de un burócrata (Death of a Bureaucrat, 1966), Los Sobrevivientes (The Survivors, 1979), and Guantanamera (1995) affectionately poke fun at the bureaucratic lunacy of the Cuban political system and the resilience of bourgeois values, making full use of the strategies of social satire and farce in doing so.
Alea is best known for his films Memorias del subdesarrollo (Memories of Underdevelopment, 1968) and Fresa y chocolate (Strawberry and Chocolate, 1994), which share the distinction of being the most acclaimed Cuban films to date. Memories of Underdevelopment chronicles the ruminations of a politically unaffiliated middle-class intellectual who becomes increasingly alienated from his surroundings after the triumph of the revolution, but lacks the conviction to leave Cuba. Strawberry and Chocolate was the first Cuban film to receive an Academy Award® nomination for Best Foreign Film. Set in the 1970s during a period of ideological conformity, the film concerns the friendship between a flamboyantly gay older man and a politically militant university student. In Alea's treatment of the historical period, it is the militant student who undergoes a profound emotional transformation and comes to understand that the eccentric iconoclast is in fact the real hero.
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