Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project No. 3

Lucía: In Progress

<span class="Italic"><em>Lucía</em>: In Progress</span>

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.”

The mobile camera, especially pronounced in the film’s first chapter, was a hallmark of sixties cinema, and it has since become an instant signifier of the freedom wrought by New Wave moviemaking and cinema verité. One of its most ostentatious exemplars, in fact, was Mikhail Kalatozov’s Soviet-Cuban coproduction I Am Cuba (1964), a movie with some stylistic and structural parallels to Lucía. Solás and his cinematographer, Jorge Herrera, use their roving camera, often deploying close-ups, as part of an overall strategy of emotive excess. In the high-contrast, overexposed imagery of its more heightened passages, “1895” finds an agitated visual analogue to the story’s mood swings, many of them cued to its heroine’s up-and-down romance with the dashing Rafael (Eduardo Moure), who claims to be a half-Spanish, half-Cuban merchant. One of the film’s most remarkable sequences is a reunion between them at an abandoned mill, with both actors wordlessly miming despair and lust in outsize gestures as the camera circles them.

Finally, Lucía leads her lover to the family plantation, where her brother and other freedom fighters have camped out, only for Rafael to reveal himself as a Spanish agent. Casting Lucía aside, he leads the Spanish troops into battle with the Cuban guerrillas, kicking off a sequence that is a kinesthetic tour de force, the camera jostling into the thick of the action and reaching its choreographic peak with the arrival of an all-Black cavalry, the mambises, riding in naked on horseback. (Herrera also went on to shoot an even more visually frenzied Cuban historical drama, Manuel Octavio Gómez’s 1969 The First Charge of the Machete.) Rafael’s betrayal and the ensuing carnage, which leaves Lucía’s brother dead, drive her mad. More to the point, they grant her the lucidity of madness: an awareness of what must be done to the oppressor.

Each subsequent Lucía represents a generational gain in consciousness and agency, as well as a step down in social standing. The young heroine of “1932” (Eslinda Núñez) has a factory job but comes from a bourgeois family. In a voice-over that sets the episode’s ruminative tone, she recounts being sent off with her mother to their summer home on one of the Cuban keys to avoid mounting political unrest (or because her father is having an affair, as her mother believes). Núñez, who played one of the cad hero’s objects of fantasy in Memories of Underdevelopment, brings a watchful reserve to this Lucía, whose love interest, Aldo (Ramón Brito), an idealistic young revolutionary, frees her from the comfort and tedium of middle-class existence (exemplified by her self-absorbed mother) and sparks her political awakening.

Solás has described this section as the film’s most personal, inspired by memories of his father, a staunch opponent of the Machado government. Aldo stages guerrilla attacks, and Lucía joins protest marches, but their efforts are doomed to failure. The new regime brings more of the same—a victory party tellingly devolves into debauchery—and disillusionment sets in. As in the film’s first part, tragedy looms: Lucía ends up widowed, pregnant, alone. But the mood is entirely different, Solás replacing operatic grandeur with measured melancholy and a hint of fatalist noir. Denying viewers the catharsis of the first part, “1932” ends on a note of irresolution, as befits the period’s abortive revolution.

“196..” leapfrogs the successful revolution of the fifties, landing in the sunlight of the present—this section is brighter in every sense—and on a new set of problems. The third and final Lucía (Adela Legrá), introduced amid a brigade of women agricultural workers, is the subject of good-natured teasing from her comrades for her infatuation with Tomás (Adolfo Llauradó), a brash truck driver. (Solás here reunites the two leads of Manuela, who both bring a raw physicality to their roles.) Marriage turns the domineering Tomás even more wildly possessive: he forbids Lucía from returning to the fields, and even boards up the windows to keep her isolated. A committed revolutionary in other respects, he sees no problem with inequality in the domestic sphere, even resisting when Lucía is asked to participate in the postrevolutionary literacy campaign.

As different as all three sections are from one another, the final one represents the film’s most dramatic break. While the other Lucías were white, this one is mixed-race, part of a racially integrated community shepherded by a Black couple. The earlier Lucías were products of their colonial and neocolonial times, subject to European and North American influences, reflected in fashions and behaviors as well as in the film’s musical cues. For the first two sections, the composer Leo Brouwer adapts themes from Schumann and Chopin; the last makes prominent use of the best-known of all Cuban folk songs, “Guantanamera,” with the singer Joseíto Fernández contributing verses that narrate and annotate the story of Lucía and Tomás. 

In contrast to the clearly defined antagonists of the previous sections—the Spanish occupiers, the Machado regime—the forces of oppression here are more diffuse but also more entrenched: machismo and patriarchy. Also notable is Solás’s radical change in tone: while Tomás’s hulking presence carries a queasy edge of violence, much of “196..” plays as a broad and boisterous comedy. After Lucía leaves Tomás, he tracks her down at work, where the collective of women chases him through an expanse of salt flats, eventually restraining and dispatching him. Whereas Solás uses melodrama to analytical ends, linking the fates of the characters to forces larger than themselves, comedy in the third chapter proves a useful and flexible form, allowing for an emphasis on human contradictions and inviting recognition from the viewer.

Along with Memories of Underdevelopment, Lucía helped put Cuba’s incipient national cinema on the world map. It won the top prize at the Moscow International Film Festival from a jury that included Glauber Rocha and King Vidor, and was part of the first edition of the Cannes Directors’ Fortnight, in 1969. Given the state of U.S.-Cuba relations, the film took longer to reach American audiences. It was scheduled for the opening night of a festival of Cuban films in New York in March 1972, only for the screening to be disrupted by anti-Castro protesters who released white mice and set off a stink bomb. The festival was shut down the next day by the Treasury Department, which claimed the films had not been licensed to screen in the U.S. Lucía eventually received an American release in 1974, upon which many reviewers were inclined to read it through the lens of women’s liberation; in the New York Times, Nora Sayre called the third section “the best discussion of equality (and inequality) I’ve seen on-screen.” Solás, for his part, declined to describe his film as feminist: “Lucía is not a film about women, it’s a film about society,” he said. “But within that society, I chose the most vulnerable character, the one who is more transcendentally affected at any given moment by contradictions and change.”

If the first Lucía falls into the archetype of the wronged woman, and the second that of the loyal-bystander wife, Legrá’s Lucía is the most complex figure of the three. In an iconic moment, she faces down her husband, and the audience, with a defiant stare, peering out from under a straw hat. But it is significant that, unlike the other Lucías, she does not wind up alone. Lucía returns to Tomás, declaring her intention to remain with him and to continue working; he rejects the latter possibility. The film ends from the point of view of a young girl, laughing as she observes the couple tussling. It is a pointedly unresolved conclusion: the struggle continues.