What can it mean for cinema to be revolutionary? Answering a version of this question in a 1977 interview, the Cuban filmmaker Humberto Solás stressed the importance of real-world context. In a capitalist environment, a revolutionary film must strive for the effect of a guerrilla action, transcending mere analysis or exposé. In a socialist society, however, with the revolution already achieved—as in the Cuba of the sixties, where Solás and his compatriots were forging a very particular cinematic New Wave—what is needed is not a call to arms but a reminder of the work still to come. Such films, Solás argued, “must present the revolution as a permanent fact, an ongoing process which nothing can reverse.” Few movies have ever adopted this mandate with the conceptual sophistication and pointed vigor of Solás’s first full-length feature, Lucía (1968), an astonishing reinvention of the historical epic.
With its three parts, which span some seven decades, Lucía is nothing less than an attempt to dramatize the forces of history as they play out in relationships between women and men, and between the individual and the collective. Each section, titled after the year in which its events begin, focuses on a woman named Lucía who is both a participant in a love story and an emblem within a larger political canvas. “1895” takes place during Cuba’s war of independence from Spain, “1932” in the days before and after the uprising against the dictator Gerardo Machado, and “196..” within the approximate present of the movie, in the heady aftermath of the revolution. The protagonist of each story comes from a different social class: the aristocracy, the bourgeoisie, and the peasantry. And each tale is told in a markedly different style and register: tragic melodrama for the first, romantic reverie for the second, and knockabout farce for the third.
That a film as ambitious and expansive as the two-hour-and-forty-minute Lucía, made when Solás was all of twenty-six, was even possible speaks to the central position that cinema occupied in postrevolutionary Cuba. In March 1959, less than three months after Fidel Castro’s forces drove the military dictator Fulgencio Batista into exile, the new government established a film institute, the Instituto Cubano del Arte e Industria Cinematográficos (ICAIC). The history of cinema has seen moments of alignment between radical politics and radical art, but rarely were the two as inseparable as in sixties Cuba. If the revolutionary Soviet filmmakers of the twenties were working with a medium in its relative infancy, the young Cuban cineastes, adopting the internationalist stance of the revolution, could find in global midcentury cinema an abundance of possible models, from the underdog humanism of Italian neorealism to the freewheeling iconoclasm of various burgeoning New Waves, not just those of France and Japan but also of Communist countries like Czechoslovakia and Poland. Cuban revolutionary cinema also arrived in concert with the Latin American–led political film movement that came to be known as Third Cinema. But whereas Third Cinema films were typically marginal and oppositional, the emerging Cuban cinema was a state-sponsored enterprise, one for which the revolution framed and encompassed all aspects of life, not least artistic creation.
“Instead of settling on one form, Solás uses multiple, allowing the movie to gain its power and meaning through juxtaposition and accumulation.”
The Cuban filmmakers of the sixties sought not just to build an industry from the ground up but also to create a popular art that mirrored and addressed the shifting realities and consciousness of the people. Despite the absence of a strong filmmaking tradition in prerevolutionary Cuba, local audiences had long been exposed to Hollywood product—a stream that would soon dry up with the U.S. blockade—and to Latin American strains of melodrama, mostly from Mexico. At least in its inaugural decade-long golden age—before the “Marxist institutionalization of culture,” as Solás would describe the later turn of events—this was a notably pluralist cinema, one that resisted orthodoxy and dogma, approached established genres as pliable templates, and retained a healthy wariness of strict ideological modes like socialist realism, which guerrilla leader Che Guevara deemed a “frozen” form. To the perennial problem of finding an appropriate mode for revolutionary art, Lucía represents an ingenious solution: instead of settling on one form, Solás uses multiple, allowing the movie to gain its power and meaning through juxtaposition and accumulation, as in a dialectical process.
Lucía unites the twin imperatives that defined postrevolutionary Cuban filmmaking—on the one hand, to capture and analyze the lived experience of the revolution in a period of rapid change, and, on the other, to reclaim the recounting of history from decades of distortion and amnesia. The late sixties saw the memorialization of Cuba’s “hundred-year struggle,” an epoch that began in 1868 with the start of the Ten Years’ War, the colony’s first liberation war against Spain. As Lucía systematically demonstrates, these glances backward do not simply serve a commemorative purpose but constitute an active process of connecting the dots, tracing a long and ongoing course of decolonization, from Cuba’s fight for sovereignty to the triumph of the revolution and beyond.
This may sound like a bold undertaking for a relative neophyte, but Solás was precocious in other ways, having joined the anti-Batista resistance movement at age fourteen. He started making short films in his teens and found, after studying history at the University of Havana, ample opportunities to experiment in the fervid atmosphere of the early ICAIC, with its copious documentary and newsreel production. Solás’s medium-length Manuela (1966), the story of a peasant woman turned guerrilla fighter, brought him attention and also established a career-long interest in female protagonists. As was standard practice, the script for Lucía evolved through collective discussion, which required the revision of the second and third stories. Two notable collaborators are credited with Solás as cowriters: Nelson Rodríguez—who edited Lucía as well as 1968’s other great Cuban film, Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s Memories of Underdevelopment—and Julio García Espinosa, who directed the previous year’s experimental comedy The Adventures of Juan Quin Quin and in 1969 wrote the Cuban film movement’s best-known manifesto, titled “For an Imperfect Cinema.”
The opening section of Lucía is its most flamboyant. The year is 1895, Cuba having just embarked on its final war of independence against Spain, and the first Lucía, played by the regal stage star Raquel Revuelta, belongs to a realm of nobility and comfort. With so many men off at war, and as a single woman approaching a certain age, she worries about being “left on the shelf.” No sooner has Solás established a cosseted social world of ruffled finery than he disrupts it with a shock cut to wagons laden with dead soldiers, rumbling through the streets to the Cassandra-like cries of the town’s resident madwoman, Fernandina (Idalia Anreus), while the handheld camera matches her whirling-dervish flailings. One of Lucía’s gossipy friends, barely containing her excitement, reveals Fernandina’s lurid backstory: a nun tasked with converting dying men, she was raped on the battlefield. Solás dramatizes this trauma as an expressionist nightmare—unfolding in a Boschian hellscape of fire, smoke, and hanging corpses, scored to dissonant chimes and tortured sighs—and intercuts the flashback with Lucía’s horrified reaction, anticipating the two women’s entwined fates.
“Solás and his cinematographer, Jorge Herrera, use their roving camera, often deploying close-ups, as part of an overall strategy of emotive excess.”
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