Struggles with history

by Peter Biskind

from Jump Cut, no. 2, March 1974, pp. 7-8
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1974, 2004

Five years after it was made, and two years after its premier in New York at the ill-fated Cuban Film Festival in 1972, LUCIA, the two-and-a-half-hour epic of Cuban development directed by Humberto Solas has been recently made available in 35mm and 16mm by Tricontinental Films. For those familiar with the difficulties involved in viewing Cuban films in this country, LUCIA provides a rare opportunity to see an extraordinary film, and it serves as a reminder of what we have been missing as a result of the Nixon administration’s byzantine attitude towards Cuba.

Despite the flurry of protest occasioned by the seizure of Cuban films at the Festival in 1972, the episode has been generally forgotten, and in the course of the hue and cry over the Solzhenitsyn affair, it has been made to appear that the USSR has a monopoly on state censorship of art and artists. It doesn't. Not only did the Treasury Department succeed in closing down the Festival; but as a consequence, it bankrupted American Documentary Films, the Festival’s chief sponsor and one of the few independent distributors of dissenting political films, intimidated such institutions as the Museum of Modern Art and the American Film Institute into dropping scheduled screenings of suddenly “controversial” Cuban films, and as recently as January 1974 prevented Tomas Gutierrez Alea, director of MEMORIES OF UNDERDEVE OPMENT, from entering the country to accept an award from the National Society of Film Critics in New York. MEMORIES itself was premiered last spring.

Now, a year later, we finally have a chance to see LUCIA. Why, in these two instances, the U.S. government relaxed its cultural blockade of Cuba is a mystery. Perhaps these films shown separately at discrete intervals do not possess the dreadful first strike capacity attributed to the group of films mobilized for the Cuban Film Festival.
LUCIA is composed of three separate episodes, each set in a different historical period, and each dealing with a different class—the aristocracy, the bourgeoisie, the peasantry—the class in the foreground of the particular historical moment in question. Each episode revolves around a woman called Lucia, and each chronicles a stage in a threefold struggle: for the personal liberation of the individual from restrictive roles imposed by class and sex, for the decolonization and transformation of Cuba, and for an authentic national film style free from the models imposed by Western cultural colonialism, and adequate to render the reality of the new Cuba.

The first episode is set in 1895, during the nationalist war against Spain, the first stage in the long struggle for Cuban independence. Both the style and situation of this section are drawn from Visconti, whom Solas has acknowledged as a major influence on his work. In particular, LUCIA draws from Visconti’s SENSO, the tale of a high-born Italian woman compromised by a desperate passion for an Austrian officer which leads her to betray her patriot cousin and her country during the war for Italian unification. When Lucia falls in love with Rafael, a Spanish agent, she leads him to her ancestral home, a coffee plantation hidden in the mountains which serves as headquarters for the rebels, her brother among them. Rafael, who had contrived the affair with Lucia precisely to this end, reveals the location of the plantation to the Spanish troops. In the ensuing battle, the rebels are destroyed, and her brother, Felipe, killed. Driven by revenge, Lucia stabs her deceiver to death, and is dragged away, a lost woman on the road to madness.

Solas’ version of Visconti’s story reveals his own preoccupations. Lucia is much more the victim than Visconti’s Livia, much more a pawn of forces beyond her comprehension. Lucia is terrified by the prospect of spinsterhood (all the men have gone to fight) and trapped in a suffocating world of crinolines and chatter, the last flower of an effete and doomed colonial culture. She breaks away into the only alter-native available to a woman of her class and time, but which nevertheless is tragically obsolete. She abandons herself to a grand passion, to a myth of romantic self-fulfillment (“All I want is to be happy” ) which is as derivative in its way of a bygone Byronism, as the finery of her class is imitative of Paris fashions. In the fragile world of colonial Cuba, far from Europe, her gestures of passion become a strained and unnatural parody of borrowed forms, a feverish mimicry of Continental literary romances, finally shattered in the collision with historical reality.

Solas enforces this image of a derivative and inauthentic society in dissolution with an appropriately eclectic, violent, and dislocated style—or, I should say, styles—for he offers us a Cook’s tour of contemporary film schools. For the trip to the plantation, through a lush, mist shrouded, tropical rain forest, and the ensuing battle, Sofas has adopted the look of Kuris. The affair of politics (Rafael) and passion (Lucia) is orchestrated to a score of sighs, flutters, fixed stares and throbbing music characteristic of the later, operatic Visconti. Discarding the Italian director’s florid heaviness, Solas has stretched Visconti’s style into a shrill and brittle satire on the world of the ruling class. This world is periodically punctuated by brutal cuts to a stark landscape of battle, circled by vultures, strongly reminiscent of similar scenes in Has’ masterpiece, THE SARAGOSSA MANUSCRIPT. And in fact, this entire section of LUCIA is strongly flavored with a feverish romanticism characteristic of the Polish school in some of its wilder moments.

Set in 1933, during and after the downfall of the dictator Machado, the second section of LUCIA is shot in the muted, quiet style of JULES AND JIM, or Franju’s THERESE, employing slow, deliberate pans, tracks, and zooms. The episode is cast in the form of a reverie, as a new Lucia calls up the memories of her life with Aldo, a revolutionary dedicated first to the overthrow of Machado, and then Batista, when that leader in turn betrays the revolution. Solar has a good eye for the concrete forms inhabited by the revolutionary impulse as it works itself out in different historical moments. Aldo, with his troubled student’s face, his straw hat and tommy gun, is a militant Michael Corleone, a tupamaro of the twenties. He operates with his friend Antonio in a seemingly isolated guerrilla band without apparent contact with the other such groups we assume must exist. It is not until the final section of LUCIA that Solas gives us a strong sense of the people, of the collective wisdom to be gained from the community. Aldo, with the virtues and limitations of the bourgeois urban revolutionary, is eventually shot down in the street.
Solas portrays the smug and decadent bourgeois world that Lucia flees with a few economical strokes. This time, Lucia’s passion for Aldo, unlike her predecessor’s for Rafael, is historically progressive. It is this coincidence of private and public, of passion and history, that lends this section an aesthetic coherence absent from Part One. But despite the fact that Lucia makes great strides towards her own personal liberation, leaving the sterile and narcissistic world of her family to work in a cigar factory, leading a protest march of women against the regime, she has far to go. It is Aldo who talks, fights, and dies; it is Lucia who sticks loyally by him (“I'll follow you; I'm your wife, Aldo” ). She carries his baby and endures, alone, after his death. It is Lucia whose face fills the screen with the enigmatic gaze and opaque beauty of Godard’s Anna Karina. And it becomes clear that this is Solas’ meditation on Lucia, a man’s meditation on the mystery of a woman, as much as it is Lucia’s on Aldo. Lucia remains remote, an object of contemplation, rather than an agent of historical change.

The last section of the film is set in a communal agricultural settlement in post-revolutionary Cuba. It employs a light, comic, self--mocking tone to tell the story of newlyweds, Lucia and Tomas, who spend all their time in bed until their comrades insist that they must end their honeymoon and rejoin their fellow workers in the fields. But Tomas, brought up in the old school, not only refuses to let Lucia work but, insanely jealous, confines her to the house, boards up the windows, and holds her a virtual prisoner. When she complains that he is violating the spirit of the revolution, he grandly announces: “I am the revolution.” Lucia escapes with the help of a teacher from Havana sent to the countryside as part of the literacy campaign. Tomas pursues her to the salt marsh where she is working with a group of women. She runs for it; he chases her; the women chase him. As the film closes, the couple are still fighting, still in love, still at odds, struggling to resolve the tangled web of old and new. Comedy, the genre form Solas has chosen as appropriate to life in a revolutionary society, suggests that the contradictory claims of the sexes, of the generations, of the self and the community, will be ultimately reconciled.

One of the strengths of LUCIA is its sensitivity to the complex interplay between historical destiny and private experience. Each Lucia is the locus of intersection between large social changes and sharply perceived personal needs. Each makes choices whose sources are at once public and private. But it is a testimony to the honesty of this film that political changes, difficult as they are to achieve and consolidate, are often more easily made than transformations of deeply ingrained cultural and social attitudes which directly oppress individuals, especially women. The Lucia of Part Two finds it relatively easy to abandon her class for a job in a factory, to overcome the as yet historically invisible sexist attitudes which continue to define her consciousness and limit her options in her new situation.

LUCIA reveals a profoundly Marxist sense of inevitable historical progress. The attempts of the private self to evade history are futile and destructive. The more Lucia of the first section tries to escape the turmoil of the struggle against Spain, as she seeks refuge first in love, and then in the seclusion of her plantation, the more she unwittingly delivers herself into the very heart of the conflict. Part Two underlines this moral. It is on the isolated key off the coast of Cuba where her father has sent her to avoid the upheavals precipitated by the revolt against Machado that Lucia first encounters Aldo, who is hiding out from the police. Later, rather than running away, she returns to Cuba, to Aldo, and accepts her historical destiny. In Part Three, Tomas’ attempt to isolate his wife and private life from the community, and the historical development it embodies, is again both futile (history penetrates his closed world in the form of the literacy teacher) and dangerous; it comes close to destroying his marriage. Yet Solas’ characters are not mere passive vessels of historical truth. Nor, as the third section shows, is personal transformation guaranteed by political success. It must be consciously struggled towards, day by day, in the bedroom as well as the streets.

The products of a nation’s cultural life often reflect larger truths about itself, and it is per-haps an indication of the vitality of Cuban society that LUCIA’s open-ended sense of progressive historical development strikingly sets it off from current U.S. films. Most Hollywood films these days, like WALKING TALL, are either consciously anti-historical (the omnipotent hero, self-created and defined, conquers all) and unconsciously regressive. That is, they may obsessively invoke exhausted cultural myths to solve contemporary problems, or, if they do project an historical vision, like Peckinpah’s westerns, it is most often one of a doomed and dying community, its options foreclosed and its fate sealed. LUCIA, on the other hand, looks forward to a future full of promise.