Essential Cuban Films You Should Know

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This week, President Obama’s lift of the 54-year-long American trade embargo against Cuba — which would ease restrictions on travel and financial activities, normalizing relations with the country — was announced. But different generations of Cubans are processing different feelings about the historic move. The economic crisis in Cuba that resulted from the embargo, and the country’s war-torn history, has been the subject of many films. Throughout the history of Cuban cinema, filmmakers have explored sociopolitical issues and the country’s shifting identity. Here are a few films to put on your radar before exploring Cuban cinema for the first time.

Lucía

A period tale that explores the lives of Cuban women during the Cuban War of Independence, the 1930s, and the 1960 — all pivotal moments in the country’s history reflected in the treatment of its women — Humberto Solás’ Lucía is a heart-rending and compassionate work that received international critical acclaim, and was made when the filmmaker was only 26. “The most spectacular masterpiece to emerge from the Latin American cinema to date, Lucía is a grandiose mix of audacity, romanticism, experimentalism, and epic historical vision,” writes New Yorker Films.

Memories of Underdevelopment

Based on a novel by Edmundo Desnoes (Inconsolable Memorias), Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s 1968 film Memories of Underdevelopment was the first film to be made in post-revolutionary Cuba, released in the United States. Sergio (Sergio Corrieri) is a playboy writer filled with bourgeois malaise living in Havana in the wake of the Bay of Pigs Invasion, amid the looming Cuban Missile Crisis. “Like Sergio, the country and its people can only wallow in the unfulfilled promise of its revolutionary consciousness,” writes Slant. Alienated because of his own intellectual convictions, Sergio tries to contend with the “underdevelopment” of his home country.

One Way or Another

We ranked Sarah Gomez’s One Way or Another as one of the most essential feminist films for its focus on the issues of marginalized women and the effects of post-revolutionary Cuba on the family and community.

Portrait of Teresa

Pastor Vega’s Portrait of Teresa is centered on the overburdened life of a Havana factory worker, wife, and fledgling activist during post-revolutionary Cuba. Daisy Granados gives a stellar performance in Vega’s neorealist portrayal of the double standard facing Cuban women from the time period, coping with the sexist traditionalism of the past in the face of sweeping social and political change.

Strawberry and Chocolate

The story of an evolving relationship between a university student and a young gay artist critical of the anti-gay prejudice under Castro’s rule. “Nothing unfolds as we expect,” Roger Ebert wrote in his 1995 review. “Strawberry and Chocolate is not a movie about the seduction of a body, but about the seduction of a mind. It is more interested in politics than sex – unless you count sexual politics, since to be homosexual in Cuba is to make an anti-authoritarian statement whether you intend it or not.”

I Am Cuba

Come for the dazzling camerawork and famous long take, stay for the “Soviet-Cuban celluloid love letter to the Castro revolution, filmed in beautiful, pellucid monochrome.”

Death of a Bureaucrat

Fernando F. Croce called Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s 1966 film:

A work of speed and vehemence, attentive to the clutter of Cuba’s changing times and assembled so caustically that Gutiérrez Alea’s ultimate joke comes to rest in the chasm separating the hopes of institutional change in the revolution’s slogan (“Death to Bureaucracy”) from the biting and human-sized realities of the title.

Clandestinos

Part romantic tale, part political thriller, Fernando Pérez’s 1987 debut film (set in the ‘50s) centers on anti-Batista activists who print subversive political pamphlets amid the revolutionary fight against the dictator. Clandestinos was a box office favorite, winning the Havana Film Festival’s Best Actress award for Isabel Santos.

P.M.

The first film to be banned in Cuba under the Castro regime was 1961’s P.M. — a documentary short that captures the bustling nightlife scene at the waterfront bars and clubs of Regla, along the Havana Bay. Watch it, below.