Solás: A cinema of crossed interrelations with Europe and Latin America

Cuban Humberto Solás’ film-making points to essential and cultural elements that come out of the very drama of Latin American and Caribbean reality, especially Cuba’s. All of his work, including his unpublished scripts, procures enormous curiosity and attention toward the Latin American, way beyond the borders of their countries.

Foto: Archivo IPS Cuba

The structure of the cinematographic cultural view in an individual like Humberto Solás (1941-2008), who was born into a family of non-professionals, whose parents emerged in a single generation from poverty to middle class, was surely supported by contributions from diverse sociocultural contextual elements of the period.

In some way he must have been influenced by the type of cinema shown at the time (in the 1940s and 1950s) in Havana, a city that at that time had innumerable movie theatres, numerous and comfortable as could be found in few cities in the world.

 

At that moment in Havana many of the great classics of world cinema were regularly screened. I take an anecdote told by his sister Elia Solás Borrego in an interview, referring to Humberto: “I don’t remember the first time he went to the movies, but the first time he showed a different attitude is when Joan of Arc, with Ingrid Bergman, was premiered. That film was premiered in 1948, during summer vacations, in the América Theatre. That boy stood up to applaud feeling a special connection with what he had seen and which had moved him so deeply.”[1]

 

In the second half of the 1940s and perhaps up to his adolescence, his mother Rosa Borrego used to take Humberto and his sister Elia up to twice a week to the premier of Argentinian, Spanish and Mexican films, which were screened every week in the movie theatres of Old Havana; I refer especially to those films in Spanish and not only to those, because for Rosa it was almost impossible to read the subtitles of other films that were not in Spanish. It is during that stage of the first childhood of Humberto when we can assume that he started having, simultaneously with the knowledge received in school, the first contacts with Latin American culture in the boy who would later become a filmmaker.

 

That interweaving of multinational films could be occurring in many other Latin American countries and impregnating in a similar way the majority of their future filmmakers. And it is something that will coincide with the fact that in the late 1940s a change of genre cinema[2] was outlined (the star-system of the 1940s) and the boom in the auteur cinema began, especially in Europe, and it is there where the young Humberto will place his maximum attention.

 

The Latin American Association of Independent Filmmakers was created in 1958, the antecedent of the Viña del Mar First Meeting of Latin American Filmmakers. Latin America was advancing toward a “third cinema” that was not a genre or auteur one; meanwhile, the imprint of Italian neorealism, with its documentary vision, was marking several of the new currents and filmmakers in Cuba, among them Humberto Solás. While in other countries of the region the re-emergence of regional cinema exalted the social function of cinema and the filmmaker, perhaps with certain contempt for the formal, in some way – very intuitive – Solás was already distancing himself, in many aspects of his films, from the ideas of the movement known as New Latin American Cinema. In the region, its admiration for Glauber Rocha and his “aesthetics of violence” perhaps created an emotional tie between the two ways of making films – Cuban and Brazilian – of nations with analogous ethnic ingredients. While the Latin American films in the 1960s focused on political ideas and social conflicts, the Cuban context was redirecting the options toward other directions as the decade was reaching its end.

 

Humberto points to essential and cultural elements that would come out of the very drama of our reality, especially the Cuban one.

 

With Manuela (1966), a film in which the prolonged and difficult task of casting that leads to choosing a farmer woman without experience as the actress for the leading role, Solás initiated a cycle for the search of the national identity that would pass through Lucía (1968), achieving a closure of socio-political-sensorial cycle within the dynamics of the Cuban-Latin American context with the documentary Simparelé, about the struggles in Haiti, achieving his maximum exponent with the feature Cantata de Chile (1974) and throughout his entire career.

 

Solás will directly and indirectly deal with the problems of Latin America and the Caribbean except for his two most important films: Cecilia (Cannes official selection in 1982), a master work that will place unprecedented artistic referential images for all experts on Spanish colonialism, and El siglo de las Luces, a version very close to the novel by Alejo Carpentier, where he shows multiple social, economic and political aspects that make up the region’s identity, also taking into account the French-speaking Caribbean. His entire work, which includes unpublished scripts – like Gloria City, Retour a Cienfuegos and Havana Broadway -, will procure enormous curiosity and attention toward the Latin American, way beyond the borders of our countries, in a globalised and increasingly closer world.

 

LUCÍA

 

The character of La Fernandina in Solás’ master work, Lucía (1968), the height of this interpretation full of subtle nuances and the margins of improvisation that strengthen the acting disposition of the actress (Idalia Anreus) in this small and crucial role, link Humberto to Glauber Rocha, who had already made Black God, White Devil in 1964. When we analyse the original script we discover that after the cry of “¡Hijos de perra!, ¡señoritos bitongos!” (Sons of bitches! Mama’s little boys!), Humberto adds, during the filming: “Frenchified”, which reinforces this idea in a script that greatly preserves its integrity. The force and level of Idalia Anreus in her role as La Fernandina, in addition to it having been designed from the beginning to the end as an essential character in the script, stands out in her first appearance, since the interpretation as well as the visual management of the hands is so obvious that from the beginning they fascinate that great photographer that is Jorge Herrera and the director. The importance of this character grows spontaneously in the film and it is in the phrase “wake up Cubans” that La Fernandina acquires, already from that initial moment, a protagonist dimension that was not described – perhaps previewed unconsciously – in the script and that will accompany the complete progression of the first story of Lucía. Meanwhile, he allows the character to symbolise the very story and the intrinsic tragedy of this story.

 

The description by Rafaela (scene 24, page 11): “they say La Fernandina was one of those Our Lady of Charity nuns who went to battlefields to convert the dying…,” marks the way in which Humberto, like Glauber, confers an enormous creative freedom when filming. The scenes of the raping of the nuns are displayed, in a parallel production a conversation will start between Rafaela and the girls where the dialogues will be adjusted, with a dozen scenes that have been preconceived dramatically in great detail, up to the culmination of the parallelism of the tearful face of Raquel Revuelta with the powerful close up of Idalia’s face while she is being raped. The script only previewed (scenes 46-47-48) the description: “Lucía looks like a corpse. All of a sudden she faints and falls to the floor, the girls scream.” The scene acquires a symbolic dimension that floods the first story of the film Lucía.…

 

CANTATASolás-y-Rubens-de-Falco-en-Un-Hombre-de-éxito-jpg-360x240

 

In a short interview published in El País in 1979[3], Humberto Solás expressed the baroque style of the film about which he previously said: “I built a film that is called Cantata de Chile and I made it as a profane cantata, where a collective character – the workers of Iquique – perform as a chorus expressing a collective social awareness and which will be the intermediary between the audience and the events. The film is based on a skeleton that is the history of the miners who in 1907 decided to protest. They went to the city of Iquique to innocently ask the Chilean government to serve as intermediary before the British companies. Not only did they (the government) not do it, but instead they decided to exterminate them: 3,600 persons died, among them miners, women and children. To me this event was the detonator of a historic experience. On the one hand, the proletariat’s mobilising ability was discovered; and on the other the fascist inclination of the Chilean bourgeoisie. This experience could be linked to that of the government of Salvador Allende, in which the Chilean army again is given the role of executioner. I establish constant ruptures,” explains filmmaker Humberto Solás. “I make interpolations of events in Chilean history.”

 

We can appreciate in this film, more than in others, the intertwined imprint of Italian neorealism and the Brazilian cinema novo, perhaps because Humberto precisely bet in the 1970s on constant change. On this occasion the scenario was saturated with the influence of socialist realism and he knew that with Lucía he had already left a lasting mark with a personal style unique to Cuban and Latin American cinema, which is why he had to undertake new stylistic explorations that would distance him from the aesthetics of socialist realism.

 

A year before, in 1978, in an interview titled “Every Point of Arrival is a Point of Departure,” published in JUMP CUT[4], one of the interviewers asked him if his most recent films continue depending, to a high degree, on improvisation in acting, and the filmmaker answered: “Absolutely! It’s all improvisation. My last film, Cantata de Chile (1975) is in fact the one I rehearsed the least before the actual shooting. I really never decided more than an hour before filming how to handle the staging.”

 

And he adds: “90% of the cast were non-professionals.., I could never demand that they memorise the script…even the lead actor, Nelson Villagra (The Jackal of Nahueltoro, The Promised Land, The Last Supper) had to adjust himself to this rather unusual procedure.”

 

Referring to this film, he was also asked if he had in mind a particular type of audience when he made a film and Solás gives two appreciations that I now interconnect because of how appropriate both aspects are to understand the attention Latin American filmmakers attach to the audiences of our region. Solás says: “Of course. I create my work for a very vast audience. Who forms part of an audience? Really, that is a difficult question….” Further on he adds: “For example, I had hoped that Cantata de Chile would be more successful in Cuba than it was. The members of the crew were convinced that we were working on a very illuminating film, one which clarified a lot of complex issues…. The film turned out to be more appropriate for other sectors of Latin America.”

 

The years have gone by and this film by Solás, perhaps the maximum exponent in his work of immersion in the Latin American problems, is still underestimated by cinema buffs and specialists in Cuba. It is certainly a work that was finished in a hurry for its presentation in the 20th Film Festival of Karlovy Vary, Czechoslovakia, where it won the 1976 Cristal Globe Grand Prize, but Cantata de Chile is an aesthetically daring film that was a rupture with the images dominating in the political films of its time. That same year it formed part of the important official selection of the Venice Film Festival.

 

SIMPARELE

 

Authors Louise Diamond and Lyn Parker, in their essay Simparelé: The Heartbeat of a People,[5] state: “Simparelé is history interpreted through people’s art. The film synthesizes the primary forms through which the Haitian people have expressed themselves in the centuries since the island’s colonization by the French and the massive importation of African slaves to fuel its plantation economy…. Simparelé acknowledges the powerful role which Afro-Haitian culture has played in these people’s political struggle as both repository for people’s history and the raw material from which that history can be reconstructed and transformed.”

 

Diamond and Parker deeply capture the formula-dichotomy of a documentary winner of the Golden Shell First Prize in 1974 at the 22nd San Sebastián International Film Festival; a work in which Solás operates from the complicated state of mind in which he is overcoming the censorship of his previous film, Un día de Noviembre (1972). With this documentary Solás transcends the national fabric and thus finds the way to express a personal political perspective, now more centred on the individual, the essences and traditions, the search for cultural, religious and political freedom in the construction of a new society.

 

Further on, referring to an indispensable voodoo ceremony in the film, the authors say: “The shock of viewing this ritual sacrifice confirms that Solás has abandoned history as written by the rulers in order to confront the viewer with the visceral experience of history for the ruled.”

 

In my opinion, they have understood the true dimension of an artist who lives and differs, who constantly interprets society, always seeking new answers and leaving valuable questions to the audiences, or to himself.

 

But there is something that Humberto outlines in the documentary Simparelé, and it is the way he will deal in the future (Cecilia and El siglo de las Luces, etc.) with the consolidation of the Cuban and Caribbean nationality based on breaking down in the analysis the different aspects associated to the cultural roots, the composition of classes and races, religion and his emphasis on the original motivations of these peoples’ struggles. With time, Humberto Solás’ films, and very especially this film, acquire a special vintage while the high tones of many of the situational shocks in society and politics have been decontextualized rapidly, diluted in the abrupt national changes of the last 25 years; his decipherable images and messages then emerge as very advanced philosophical referents, to be deciphered progressively and gradually.

 

EL SIGLO…Solás-Jacqueline-Arenal-y-Frederic-Pierrot_-El-Siglo1-360x240

 

“When directing El Siglo de las Luces, the mega novel that Alejo Carpentier published in 1962, very little was left in the aesthetic imagination of Humberto Solás of the spontaneity, of that state as of crude and abrupt beauty which the maestro gave to works like Lucía or Un día de noviembre. Exactly 30 years later, in 1992, as if he was celebrating a cycle of life and of meditation, that resistance to the ironclad script is no longer observed; on the contrary, El Siglo de las Luces comes from an acute process of interior formalisation, in which each dramatic step and each movement of the camera shows signs of the most thought-out planning.”[6]

 

This is how Cuban critic Rufo Caballero begins a text where he is of help with his additional reference about the film that makes stops in several cities of the Caribbean, culminating in the 18th century: the Havana of 1788 and 1799; Port-au-Prince, Haiti, of 1791; Guadeloupe, of 1794; and Cayenne, French Guiana, of 1796 and 1802. Rufo still doesn’t know that the two-hour version was a mutilated film from an original three-hour version edited with Nelson Rodríguez, and in French. It is an indispensable task to recover that mock-up, which today does not exist and is recognised by Solás himself as his version of the film, in digital version for Cuban cinema. Meanwhile, we have the excellent TV version of three chapters, each one lasting an hour and a half, in its original version (with a very superior dubbing), in French.

 

Another text known as “Trono de Lumbre,” also published by Rufo, adds: “El Siglo de las Luces has to be read as the fortunate treaty that thinks the process and the intrigue of the revolution, its dramatic writing, its price, its result. Humberto began telling the story of what he saw, telling what he lived, until the end, explaining with maturity, based on philosophy, those frights, that lack of moderation of the soul. No wonder he finally finds his mirror in that major philosopher that is Alejo Carpentier, who thought out the Cubanness submitted to the relational range of the universe, there where the historic experience provides holds for the foundation, previous experiences, preceding samples of the edition.”

 

Caribbean identity and Cubanness come together in the closing of the cycle, in the last of the great super productions finished by Solás (Humberto created unpublished scripts after this film). As Caballero rightly states, both are in this film, as the Latin American is in Cantata de Chile, the most powerful protagonists.

 

HAVANA BROADWAY

 

In recent years, Latin American cinema has changed and considerably distanced itself from the movement known as New Latin American Cinema. There are constant attempts to define and re-conceptualise an already very distant sphere of the 1970s, when a majority of the filmmakers were politically persecuted by the Latin American dictatorships. At the same time, with respect to the cinema made in Cuba or by Cubans, especially in the last decade, there is great debate about the cinema of the diaspora, the cinema in which Cuban technicians and filmmakers work or have an influence in other countries, as well as the multiple forms of consolidation of a cinematography that faces an enormous and prolonged financial crisis and whose authors live and work, alternately, in Cuba and abroad, leaving us a complex mosaic of identities, confirmations and questions about our current cinema.

 

Humberto Solás had dealt in an excellent unpublished script, Gloria City, with important aspects of relations between the United States and Cuba during the first half of the 20th century. Written in the late 1970s, the script was inspired on the book-testimony Conversación con el último norteamericano, by Enrique Cirules.

 

Years later, Solás would work and accumulate several scripts during the difficult 1990s, during which the filmmaker spent nine years without making a film. During that stage he travelled frequently to the United States to give university lectures and attend different film festivals, he came into contact with multiple aspects of that country’s reality and especially apprehended the problems that have an influence on the life of Latinos and Cubans who live in the United States.

 

In his magnificent unpublished script Havana Broadway, Solás created an outlook of the stories, narrated in parallel, of a group of characters of Latino origin who live in New York and at the same time live with their local peers. He wrote it at the start of the new millennium and finished his first versions between 1999 and 2000. It is precisely at that moment when he is shooting the first Cuban digital film Miel para Oshún, a script by his sister Elia Solás (first version from 1993), in which the character of Roberto, who had emigrated as a child, returns to Cuba 32 years after he was taken by his father to the United States. The fundamental aim of his trip to the island is reuniting with his mother. It is a film in which the mother symbolises the nation, something that Solás will reinforce when granting the interpretation of this small role to Adela Legrá, who 30 years before became the obligated iconography of Cuban cinema, with the image – photogram and still photo – of the third story of Lucía, a story where the actress, furious (actually with the director) with her sexist husband, looks at him irately with her head covered with a towel and a hat, in front of a white and immense salt mine.  Miel… was a realist film, conceived to reach people and to cohesion them to the indispensable and necessary family reunification of the Cuban nation.

 

Another less finished script starts moving in 2002, Regreso a la isla abandonada, whose story has many similar points of contact with Miel para Oshún, but this time written by Solás. Ana, a Cuban-American of Jewish origin who lives in Los Angeles, returns to be reunited with her past in Cuba. There is no doubt about the importance Solás then gives to relations between the two nations, Cuba and the United States. Humberto does not limit himself to Florida, since his vision always tries to cover more, to get to understand a greater  dimension of the conflicts.

 

In the 1990s Solás is interested in dealing with the problems associated to Cuban family reunification, trapped in the differences that lead the day to day relations between Cuba and the United States. At a time when the Cuban families abroad, with their financial aid, start playing a decisive role in the daily life of their relatives on the island, Humberto Solás is defending these three scripts almost simultaneously.

 

In that of Havana Broadway his aim is a different visual discourse, in which we imagine a film with a very youthful spirit, which should have been shot in locations of New York and in different scenarios of Cuba, where the Cuban, Mexican and Puerto Rican characters interact with the U.S. ones in several stories. All of them united in the struggle to subsist, in constant contradiction between their aspirations, yearnings, nostalgias and failures, with Cuba as a constant dominating referent. But on that occasion, Humberto was seeking to place the audience – perhaps the Cuban from the island, essentially -, and to place himself on the other side of the shore, interacting with his Latin American peers. Solás would undoubtedly place, in the production of the film resulting from this script, numerous new nuances that would derive from the intercultural interactive process of making the film, which would be shot mainly in New York.

 

What has been expressed about these works that look toward the North adds unknown elements, surely useful for future studies of his work. Referring to these unpublished scripts by Solás acquired logical pertinence in a forum[7] whose title is precisely “¿Impactos reales?: Huellas del cine latinoamericano en el cine cubano antes y después del 59” (Real impacts? Imprint of Latin American cinema in Cuban films before and after 1959), because it will surely place new perspectives to understand which were the fundamental concerns of Humberto at that time of the start of the new century, a stage of singular maturity and activity of the artist in which, coincidentally, while he was concluding his film Miel para Oshún (2001), he launched the Gibara No-Budget Cinema International Festival. (2016)

 

 

 

[1] Interview by Danae Diéguez with Elia Solás. “Unidos por un pacto de sangre” (I and II), Altercine, Inter Press Service in Cuba (IPS-Cuba).

[2] “El, todavía, Nuevo Cine Latinoamericano”, by Paula Companioni, La Jiribilla, No 658, Year XII; December 14, 2013, http://epoca2.lajiribilla.cu/articulo/6484/el-todavia-nuevo-cine-latinoamericano

 

[3] Humberto Solás: “Cantata de Chile es una película de agitación”, El País, April 26, 1979. http://elpais.com/diario/1979/04/26/cultura/293925610_850215.html

[4] “Every Point of Arrival is a point of Departure”, by Julianne Burton and Marta Alvear. http://www.ejumpcut.org/archive/onlinessays/JC19folder/SolasInt.html

[5] Simparele: The Heartbeat of a People, by Louise Diamond and Lyn Parker. Jump Cut, from Jump Cut, no. 19, December 1978, pp. 20-21. http://www.ejumpcut.org/archive/onlinessays/JC19folder/Simparele.html

[6] Rufo Caballero, August 13, 2004. “El Siglo de las Luces: la compresión de la epístola y la reconversión estética de la alegoría”, http://www.cubaliteraria.cu/articulo.php?idarticulo=11343&idseccion=14

[7] Reffers ro the panel“¿Impactos reales?: Huellas del cine latinoamericano en el cine cubano antes y después del 59”, carried out during the Congress of the Latin American Studies Association/ LASA, in 2016. The panel was presided over by Danae Carbonell Diéguez, moderated by Gustavo Arcos Fenández-Britto and made up by paper presenters Alicia García, Justo Planas Cabreja, Sergio Benvenuto Solás and Irene Rozsa.

 

 

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