Visual style and historical
portrayal in Lucía

by John Mraz

[Editor's note: This essay is an illustrated aesthetic analysis of a major Cuban classic, with new frame enlargements. The essay, originally published in Jump Cut 19, 1978, has not been rewritten for this issue and thus reflects the author's perspective at that time.]

Lucía is among the more extraordinary cultural products of the Cuban revolution, and many have recognized it as one of the most important films produced anywhere during the last decade. As such, it has received a good deal of serious critical attention, which has, however, followed "literary" models of analysis.[1][open endnotes in new window] This essay presents some notes toward the study of the work's visual style, with particular emphasis on the issue of historical portrayal, in the belief that it is at the level of visual structure that Humberto Solás has established the "forms of perception" through which Lucía is experienced. Thus, what follows is offered as an attempt to inquire into the appropriateness of visual analysis for the study of Cuban cinema, with the hope of enhancing the understanding of the revolutionary culture of modern Cuba.

Almost from the beginning of ICAIC, Cuban cineastes have been experimenting with a variety of film styles. In the words of Alfredo Guevara, founder of the film institute, this experimentation reflects the desire

"… to demystify cinema for the entire population; to work, in a way, against our own power; to reveal all the tricks, all the resources of language; to dismantle all the mechanisms of cinematic hypnosis."

What is most characteristic and original in Cuban stylistic experimentation is what I would call "formal resonance — the aesthetic tone created by the juxtaposition of different film forms within a particular work. For example, Memories of Underdevelopment juxtaposes documentary and fictional footage while The Other Francisco combines the "perfect cinema" of classical bourgeois form (e.g., smooth tracking, pans, and zooms) with the more "rough-hewn" style of modern documentary film. The use of multiple styles has crucial epistemological implications — the most important of which are an insistence on dialectical thinking and the recognition that consciousness realizes itself at the level of perception.

For Cuban cineastes, the act of perception is in itself an expression of an individual's historical context. The way in which an individual experiences the world comes out of the situation of one's class, race, and gender within a particular socioeconomic matrix. Conflicting visual styles are used in Cuban film to represent the perception of individuals from different historical periods or from different classes. Situated in a context of revolutionary transformation where the "fact of history" is ever-present, and rooted in the historical-materialist mode of analysis, Cuban filmmakers strive to present the dialectic of perception and consciousness that is present in history.

Lucía offers an important example of Cuban experimentation with film form. The fact of historical change is established perceptually through the use of a different film style in each of the segments. In addition, the "1895" segment portrays conflicting modes of class consciousness and perception by presenting the colonial aristocracy in a normal contrast range and the lower classes in high contrast. The use of high contrast here provides a visual metaphor for the greater "realism" of the oppressed because it imitates the look of old newsreels. The entire film, in fact, has a definite documentary feel. This is obtained largely through the use of hand-held cameras that are sometimes so exquisitely sensitive as to seem to give visual expression to the emotions of the characters.

Other stylistic techniques familiar in Cuban films, such as the use of foreground interventions and anonymous close-ups (both discussed in detail below) also contribute to the "documentary" effect and enhance the sense of historical realism. Visual motifs occur, such as the presentation of sex and race relations, the use of mirror and high-angle shots, and the scenes which open each of the segments; these motifs function to form the viewer's perception of historical transformation. Finally, each of the film's segments contains essential conceptual messages, which are conveyed as much through the visual as in the narrative presentation.

In more general terms, the relation of visual style in the film to directors' and viewers' perceptual consciousness is so complex as to be beyond the scope of this essay. However, the ways in which perception is structured by a film are of crucial significance. As Douglas Sirk once stated,

"The angles are the director's thoughts. The lighting is his philosophy." [2]

Thus, it could be argued that a film's visual structure represents the consciousness of the director — the ways in which s/he sees and experiences the world and the forms of perception through which s/he presents it for others to experience. In addition, if we assert that the individual perception of the director is in some ways an expression of the cultural matrix within which it was formed, then we could expect to find film styles manifesting various cultural perspectives.

The study of visual style proceeds from the notion that films are, among other things, a visual experience — an experience structured in very particular ways. The composition within the frame, the screen size accorded characters and objects, the angle and duration of shots, the lighting and camera movement, and the use of various visual motifs all function in relation to other elements of the film (storyline, music, actors and actresses, etc.) to determine the viewer's persective. [3] However, it should be noted that the meaning of visual structures and motifs is always context-bound and bears no objective signification. For example, a low angle shot could present a person as either extremely threatening or as a benevolent protector. Thus, the meaning of a shot is determined by context — that is, by its relations with the storyline and other elements in the film.

It should be noted as well that what is presented here constitutes but a few examples of visual style in Lucía. This essay does not pretend to be an exhaustive study of the film, even at the level of visual analysis. Its potential contribution does not reside in saying anything particularly "new" about the film but rather in demonstrating the richness of the integration of content and form and the importance of form in structuring the perception of content.

Synopsis of Lucía

"1895" — An upper-class white spinster approaching middle age and living in a provincial city falls in love with Rafael, a Spaniard, in the midst of the Cuban struggle for national liberation. Despite the warnings of Fernandina, a "deranged" ex-nun who was raped during the war and who serves as a symbol of authentic Cuban culture, Lucía is duped into betraying Felipe, her brother and an anti-colonialist guerilla. Felipe is killed in the ensuing battle and Lucía is abandoned by Rafael, who she now realizes is a Spanish spy. For his betrayal, Lucía stabs Rafael to death in the town square and with this act is united with nationalist Cuba.

"1932" — A middle-class white schoolgirl falls in love with Aldo, an activist engaged in terrorism against the Machado dictatorship. Lucía takes a job in a tobacco factory in a provincial city and participates in a general strike. The fall of Machado brings no substantive changes, though, and Aldo leaves his job with the new regime, quarrels with his former comrade, Antonio, and returns to terrorism only to be killed. Lucía is left alone and pregnant.

"196_" — A mulatta campesina is married to Tomás, an extreme male chauvinist. Tomás locks Lucía in their home, stops her from working, and attempts to interfere with the Literacy Campaign instructor who teaches Lucía to read and write. Encouraged by the support given her by her fellow women workers and the process of learning to read and write, Lucía decides that she is tired of being a "slave." She leaves Tomás, but they are miserable apart from one another. As the film ends, they are together again, but the conflict between them remains unresolved.

Historical transformation and visual style

The structural bond of Lucía's three segments is the "fact of history." History, as the dialectical transformation of situational contexts and human relations, is of crucial significance in revolutionary Cuban culture — a significance reflecting both Cuba's historical reality and ideological orientation. History is an important tool in the struggle against the colonial and neocolonial values imported and imposed on Cuba prior to 1959 and is crucial to the development of a truly national identity. The extraordinary transformation of the island since the revolution "proves" the reality of history and provides the context for he Marxist orientation of Cuban culture. In Lucía, we are presented visually with the fact of history through the opening shots of each segment, the thematic treatment of sex and race relations, and the use of certain compositional techniques such as high-angle and mirror shots.

Segment opening shots

Historical transformation is immediately presented in the titled opening shots. These shots both establish the central theme of the segment and indicate the degree of change which has taken place from the time of the preceding segment.

(#1)"1895" begins with a shot of the town square, framed so as to express the dominance of massive colonial structures. Looming over everything is the tower which serves as a metaphor for the economic and ideological phallocentrism of colonial society. The critique of this phallocentrism is the focus of the "1895" segment and will be discussed in detail later (#35, #45).

(#2) "1932" opens with a very different kind of shot. Here, the high-angle camera indicates that the women are trapped in a situation of industrial labor characteristic of the bourgeois epoch. Their fragmentation and alienation from one another is expressed by the building's beams, which break up and bisect the image.

(#3) "196_" presents us with yet another image. Here, we begin in the open countryside, symbolic of both the openness of the new situation and the "naturalness" of the revolutionary process. Further, the shot's location also indicates the Cuban revolution's focus on developing rural areas. Finally, when coupled with the action which immediately follows, the shot presents us with an important critique of the prerevolutionary image of the picturesque. The shot immediately calls to mind images of sleepy peasants alongside country roads — a picturesque stereotype which quickly turns on itself when the truck rolls down the road and the women run to join their fellow workers.

Human relations: women

One of the ways in which the fact of history is visually conveyed in Lucía is through showing the transformation of personal relations among women. Representative two-shots of the Lucías and their closest friends show how such relations are determined by the historical contexts in which they occur.

(#4) The presentation of Lucía 1 and Rafaela in church against a background of people suggests the centrality of religion in providing a cohesive social context within class boundaries. Although the church is an oppressive and phallocentric institution (note background pillars) and the relations which take place in it are seen to be both formal and ritualized, it nonetheless provides a context in which the relationship beyween Lucía and Rafaela has both a place and meaning.

(#5) A very different situation is presented here for the bourgeois Lucía 2. Here, the relationship of Flora and Lucía is presented as fragmented and alienated through the use of the mirror shot and the empty background. The use of the mirror also represents the emphasis placed on women's appearance in bourgeois culture and the way in which such an emphasis pits women against and separates them from one another.

(#6) In #6 we see Lucía 3 and Angelina at a party. Here, the two-shot against the background crowd indicates that the women exist in a social context that fosters their relationship. Gone is the fragmentation and alienation of bourgeois culture, and the phallocentrism of colonial society has been reduced to vestigial remnants that are represented visually by the foreground bottles and in the character of Tomás.

Human relations: women and men

Further substantiation of historical change is presented through the visual structure of male-female relations in the film. Comparisons of the visual styles used in the initial meetings between the Lucías and their lovers demonstrate that their relations are presented as much through formal structure as in the storyline.

(#7) In the initial meeting between Rafael and Lucía 1, male dominance is indicated in his central position in the frame. His dominance so great as to almost crowd her out of the picture.

(#8) Lucía 2's meeting with Aldo is presented very differently. Here, after a short longshot containing both of them, the film cuts back and forth between individual close-ups. Lucía is shot with a sharp foreground focus, which makes her stand out from her background. Further, it appears that filters may have been used to soften her features in order to produce a portrait image reminiscent of Hollywood's presentation of women stars during the "Golden Age."

(#9) Lucía 2 gazes admiringly at Aldo, who is framed with a "halo" created by the automobile tire. By cutting between the characters rather than putting them in the same frame, the film comments on the atomistic separation present in even the most intimate of bourgeois relations.

(#10) Lucía 3's meeting with Tomás utilizes the camera angle to express continued male dominance. Here we see Lucía from the high-angle perspective of Tomás, framed between him and a mirror which symbolizes the carryover of bourgeois attitudes towards women and physical beauty. Nonetheless, her position in center-screen shows this as a situation different from the preceding two segments.

Human relations: race

The depiction of race relations, and the way in which they are transformed in the culture from the first to the last segment, is yet another way in which the film establishes history. Here, the depiction of the historical moment occurs essentially at a visual level and is often presented at the beginning of each segment.

(#11) In "1895" we are immediately shown Lucía 1 and her mother in a quitrin pulled by a horse, on which a black servant is seated. This servant is the only black person seen until the appearance of the naked black cavalry; his presentation functions as a clear statement on the nature of race relations during the colonial period.

(#12) The presentation of the fight between the Spanish, the white guerillas, and the black cavalry provides one of the films most trenchant visual analyses. In the fight at the coffee plantation, the white soldiers become essentially indistinguishable from one another as they struggle in the mud.

(#13) The naked black cavalry, however, is clearly distinguishable from both of the other groups. Here, their nakedness not only differentiates them visually but is a commentary both on the economic deprivation of their class and race as well as their "naturalness," as opposed to the sexual repression of the other groups. It is also an important example of the dramatic uses of historical veracity. The Mambises often did fight naked — a tactic which terrified the Spanish forces.

(#14) The visual differentiation of the black cavalry from the other groups indicates that, from the perspective of historical materialism, the accession to power of the white guerillas will make little difference to the masses of Cuba. Here, the black cavalry represents the lower classes and, thus, the possibility of greatest contestation to the colonial structure of class and race relations.

(#15) In "1932" the camera zooms out almost immediately in the opening sequence of the segment to disclose a black woman seated near Lucía 2 and her mother on the boat. Thus, we are told visually that race relations are somewhat different than in the preceding segment; however, the mother's later disparaging remarks about blacks indicate that the continuance of race prejudice.

(#16) Lucía 3 of "196_" appears to be a mulatta. Perhaps more importantly, she is exhorted to hurry to the truck by Angelina, a black woman who is in a position of leadership. Through presenting us with these women characters, the film makes clear the fact that race relations have been fundamentally transformed by the revolution.

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