Tomas Gutierrez Alea's final film, Guantanamera, shares a tone of wistful romanticism with the late Cuban director's Letters From the Park (a sweetly lyrical film based on the Gabriel Garcia Marquez story about a man who ghostwrites love letters) and Strawberry and Chocolate. Like a Garcia Marquez novel, Guantanamera plays as a modern-day fairy tale, one in which love transforms the characters' lives. As the characters travel across dusty villages and through tropical vegetation, the film also resembles a road movie in the sense that the characters journey both physically and emotionally to freer states; yet because the story takes place in Cuba, where the whim of a state employee can affect something as organic as ritual burial, they never truly transcend the law of the land.
Instead, they experience an emotional awakening that enables them to transcend the stifling expectations of the system. The protracted funeral procession serves as an apt metaphor for the gradual demise and internment of obsolete personal identities. While it maintains a distinctly Cuban look, the film tells the kind of humane universal story common to Garcia Marquez's writings and Alea's later films. It does so at a studied pace that grants the viewer enough emotional space to imbibe and savor its fanciful romantic tale at a deliberate rate.
In the film, Aunt Yoyita (Conchita Brando) returns to Guantanamera 50 years after she abandoned her hometown and her first love, Candido (Raul Eguren), for a successful acting career. When reunited with Yoyita, Candido confesses his undying love. Candido's thoughtful reminiscence stirs such paroxysms of joy and passion in her that Yoyita promptly dies in his arms. Georgina (Mirtha Ibarra)--Yoyita's admiring niece who, like Candido, appreciated her aunt's aliveness--mourns Yoyita with Candido.
Georgina's husband, Adolfo (Carlos Cruz), works for the state bureaucracy; hoping to advance his career, he pioneers a plan to cut Cuban fuel consumption, which entails transferring coffins into a new hearse at each town along the way to their burial sites. Yoyita's casket, accordingly, must be driven to Havana under the new system, accompanied by Georgina, Adolfo, Candido, and a driver. Coincidentally, a truck driver and former student of Georgina's, Mariano (Jorge Perugorria), embarks on a trip to Havana along the same route, and the two meet again at various points along the path.
At one point, Georgina's compassion for an expectant mother leads her to drive back to the hospital, against Alfonso's protestations over the lost time that will foil his meticulously calculated journey. Mariano drives to the same hospital to minister to his truck-driving partner, the victim of a shoe thrown by one of Mariano's women friends. While her student, Mariano left an affectionate letter for Georgina; though he lacked the courage to ever pursue her, a tender flirtation lingers. Mariano's advances, however, offend the married Georgina. Still, she secretly savors his respect and appreciation for her. Like Eguren's Candido, Ibarra's Georgina emanates passion and sincerity.
Ibarra made her first film with Gutierrez Alea, to whom she remained married for 22 years until his death last year. Co-writer and director Juan Carlos Tabio--who partnered with Alea in 1982 and collaborated in Alea's films thereafter--eschews overemphasizing Candido and Georgina's exuberance through an excess of close-ups, thus allowing the two to actualize their roles in a more understated way.
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As the caravan plods along, the judgmental inflexibility and ambitious pettiness of Georgina's husband increasingly grates on her. Like Yoyita--who herself wore the sweeping floral sundress Georgina demurely declined, because her husband would disapprove--Candido goads Georgina to turn away from the strictures of life with Adolfo, embrace her desire, and express the vivacity and effervescence she shared with Yoyita. As Adolfo bumbles and abrades, Mariano proves his steadfast devotion and unadulterated connection to Georgina. As the voyage wears on, the warm sentimentality and honesty embodied in Georgina, Candido, and, ultimately, Mariano, triumph over the oppressive rules and logic of the insentient Alfonso. Georgina finally dons the sundress, lets her hair down, and allows her desires--personal and professional--to flourish in spite of Alfonso's protestations.
The film strays even further afield from Memories of Underdevelopment, the director's signature groundbreaking 1968 film about an intellectual adrift in postrevolutionary Cuba, than did Strawberry and Chocolate, a romantic film of unfulfilled yearning whose characters lock ideological horns throughout the dialogue. Unlike the self-involved but ultimately conciliatory characters of Strawberry and Chocolate, Alfonso, an appendage of the system, comes across almost like a buffoon: His misguided plan results in mistaken coffins and ultimately doesn't save the state enough to justify the effort.
While the film clearly impels Georgina to leave repression behind and to express the warmth she so naturally exudes, Guantanamera expands Strawberry and Chocolate's tale of people who love in spite of oppressive politics and so allows its characters to embody not just their true desires, but their true, vital selves. Like the more copious selves who emerge, phoenix-like, from the funereal narrative of the film, Guantanamera resonates with the director's ardor and enthusiasm. Though not his most stringent effort, the film represents the director at his most sanguine and tender, a respectable legacy and a touching commemoration of a director whose vigor could no more be suppressed than the characters of Guantanamera.
Raul Eguren, Mirtha Ibarra, Carlos Cruz, Jorge Perugorria, Conchita Brando. Written and directed by Tomas Gutierrez Alea and Juan Carlos Tabio. Opens Friday.