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Letztes Update: 24. Mai 2021

Cuban films: a very special insight into life in Cuba

The Soy Cuba Festival is taking place in Berlin, in Babylon, and that’s why I’m taking this opportunity to report on my top 5 favorite Cuban films. There are many more great Cuban movies, but some of them grow on you more than others. I also present you the top 10 Cuban films from IMDB – to get a little objectivity into it ?

But what about you, what are your favorite movies? Surely you also have one or two films that you would like to recommend to us???

My top 5 favorite movies

Let’s start with my Numero Uno – I think it was the first Cuban movie I’ve ever seen.

Strawberry and Chocolate

Strawberry and Chocolate is, in my opinion, the most important Cuban film I have ever seen. Not to mention one of the most successful Cuban films, at least in terms of international recognition. Strawberry and Chocolate is set in Havana in the early nineties. The main characters are a faithful student and a gay artist. Both meet for the first time in the Coppelia in Havana while eating ice cream. That’s where the title Strawberry and Chocolate comes from. For the gay artist, it is very special to find a strawberry in his chocolate ice cream. And strawberries in ice are considered unmanly for a true Cuban macho. Of course, it’s also about an unhappy love story, insights into Cuban society of the nineties with its persecution of gays and – all in all – about a kind of happy end.

The film has two locations, which you can visit after you have seen the film. One is the Paladar “La Guarida”, and the other is the apartment of Diego and then the apartment of José Lezama Lima. Diego’s life is a quotation of the life of José Lezama Lima and several allusions to this Cuban author appear in the film, so it is worthwhile to visit this hidden museum.

Another brief comment about the situation of homosexuals in Cuba today: a lot has changed. Mariela Castro is committed to equal rights for homosexuals. As the daughter of Raul Castro, she had some influence and was able to achieve some improvements – at least from the official side.

The Death of a Bureaucrat

The second movie on my list is a bit older and black and white, but still worth seeing. The Death of a Bureaucrat explores what can happen when we get into the mills of bureaucracy – and this is not insignificant in Cuba. Morbid, but still amusing,  the bureaucracy turns into a funeral but fails because of various bureaucratic obstacles. Watch out for not what happens at the funeral, but what happens when you have to dig up a body 😀

The film is convincing with its internal, inescapable logic and its unaffected humor in the face of tragedy. So from time to time, the vultures circle over the house in which the corpse lies, but it’s not about slapstick humor, but always about comprehensible, logical, human decisions.

Juan de los Muertos – Juan of the Dead

My third film, on the other hand, is a horror film. A classic zombie movie. And those who are familiar with zombie movies will be reminded of other zombie movies right from the title. Such as Dawn of the Dead and – Shawn of the Dead, the ingenious zombie film parody of Edgar Wright. So Juan is like the sequel to Shawn, only in Cuba.

This time it doesn’t go through English allotments and a pub but through Havana’s colonial houses. The zombies are initially thought to be dissidents. This lends the film its own charm – not a copy, not a re-shot story, but original Cuban.

The plot revolves around a good-for-nothing group who serve after the zombie apocalypse. They remove relatives who have turned into zombies – “Juan of the Dead – we kill your beloved ones”, is how they answer the phone.

If you want to see the original film, you should definitely watch with subtitles because the actors speak a pretty blatant accent ? Juan is one of the most successful Cuban films ever in terms of the international box office and of course, I saw it first at the fantastic film festival in Berlin – even before my wife saw it, who was there when it was shot 😀

Vampiros en La Habana

Okay, we’re sticking with horror movies. Well, not quite ? Vampiros en La Habana is an animated film that deals with the great problem of vampires in an amusing way – no, not to find blood, but to go into the sun. Joseph Amadeus of Dracula, aka Pepito, is the first vampire to survive the rays of the sun. Now, other parties are also interested in the sun. It also deals with mobster vampires (the film is set in the thirties) and a European vampire cartel.

It is one of those nice, cute cartoons that make me think of reading Asterix or Lucky Luke.

It is similar to the Elpidio Valdez films, which are also quite classic for Cuba.

Habanastation

Last but not least is the film Habanastation. You have to watch this one with a child’s eye – otherwise, it’s a bit cheesy… It’s about the friendship of two students from different classes made possible by a Playstation – hence the name: Habanastation. The two students who are thrown together by chance, have to pass some heroic deeds in order to be rewarded with friendship – and a functioning Playstation.

The film is mainly produced by children who come from the Compañía Teatral Infantil La Colmenita, which also makes it something of its own.

The opinion of the masses: The Top 10 from IMDB

Now, all these films are my personal favorites and I haven’t seen all the important Cuban films, nor do I think my opinion is the belly button of the world, so I want to present to you what the mass of private film critics like. So here is the list of the top 10 Cuban films as voted on IMDB.
I have only included films produced in Cuba and with Cuban participation, i.e. no films about Cuba or films produced in other countries or by directors from other countries, nor have I included documentaries. For example, Buena Vista Social Club (documentary) or Seven Days in Havana (no Cuban directors). If I found trailers or videos, I linked them.

So here is the list of the top 10 Cuban films from IMDB. Tata!!!

  1. Soy Cuba (I am Cuba) from 1964 leads the ranking with 8.0 points. Great propaganda film that gives a deep insight into the life of Cubans in the fifties. One involuntarily thinks of Hemingway, who said that without two Daiquiris in him, he could not drive through the slums into the city center. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eOLVm_9UcRw
  2. Memorias del Subdesarrollo (1968 and 7.8 points) is the first of the four films by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea to make the list. A great film about the aftermath of the Bay of Pig invasion that left a bourgeois writer on the island while all his friends and wife fled to Miami.
  3. La Muerte de un Burócrata (Death of a Bureaucrat) from 1966, also 7.8 points, I already described above – so the first three films are all from the 1960s.
  4. Conducta (Conducta – We’ll be like Che) from 2014 with 7.6 points is the only film from the 2010s with a top 10 rating. It is a touching film about a teacher and a problematic student who comes from a bad home.
  5. Fresa y Chocolate (Strawberry and Chocolate), 1993, my absolute favorite film (see above), and just made it into the top 5 with 7.5 points.
  6. La Última Cena (The Last Supper) from 1976, highly awarded and also has 7.5 points (just behind Fresa y Chocolate) is finally the fourth film by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea on the list, which I have not seen myself. A religious plantation owner tries to convince 12 of his slaves to convert to Christianity with a reenactment of the Last Supper.
  7. El Benny, 1976, is the dramatized biography of Benny Moré, nicely done – although I didn’t expect to see it in the top 10. I saw it once in a screening of the Venezuelan Embassy and had a nice evening, but I would not have run out cheering and would not have given it 7.5 points either.
  8. Se Permuta (for example: I’m moving or I’m looking for a new apartment) is the first film from the 1980s to make the shortlist with 7.4 points.
  9. Lucía from 1968 made it to ninth place with 7.3 points. The film tells of three women from different periods, all named Lucía. One from the Cuban-Spanish civil war, another in the 1930s, and the last in the 1960s.
  10. Finally, Habana Blues (Havana Blues) from 2005 is number 10 on the list. A bit cheesy and like many Spanish-Cuban productions of that time is about leaving the island to look for happiness in Spain. However, the film is a musical and makes a sightseeing flight over almost all known bands of that time, that alone is worth seeing and hearing.

Our Man in Havana, our man in Havana by Graham Greene (1959) offers a deep insight into pre-revolutionary Cuban history. No films that I have mentioned offers this same level of insight. This film is amusing for a drastic story starring Alec Guinnes – and is far more exciting than “The Old Man and the Sea” ?

And last but not least I have to thank professors Katrin Hansing and Bert Hoffmann, who introduced me to some of the Cuban films I mentioned and to the social developments behind them at their Latin American Institute seminar at the Free University Berlin.

Now, what are your favorite Cuban movies? Which would you recommend to Cuban newcomers, do you have any insider tips?
I’m curious about your input!
Dietmar

 

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