The Film Canon: Lucía (1968)

Alongside Mikhail Kalatozov’s I Am Cuba (1964), Humberto Solás’ Lucía (1968) was one of the formative texts of the new Cuban cinema established in the wake of Fidel Castro’s 1959 Cuban Revolution. Where Kalatozov’s film was a Mosfilm Soviet co-production, Lucía stands as a distinctly Cuban document which, mimicking Kalatozov’s anthology format, and has little regard for the larger international class struggle, limiting its scope to the last hundred years of Cuban history as told through the experiences of three different women all named Lucía who live through three different moments of political upheaval. The first section set in the 1895 Cuban war of independence sees a wealthy aristocrat played by Raquel Revuelta fall in love with a dashing, seemingly apolitical stranger who in fact works as a spy for the Spanish government. After seducing her, he tricks her into revealing the location of her brother—a rebel guerrilla—at a coffee plantation where the rest of the Cuban nationalists are hiding, resulting in a massacre perpetuated by Spanish cavalry. The second section, set during the 1933 overthrowing of Cuban dictator Gerardo Machado, sees a similarly aristocratic Lucía (played by Eslinda Nunez) fleeing her pampered life to shack up with a revolutionary named Aldo. But when the two discover that the new US-backed regime of Carlos Quesada is just as decadent and corrupt, they attempt one last act of revolutionary violence before being crushed under the heel of Western imperialism. The last third takes place in an unspecified time in the 60s and follows a third Lucía played by Adela Legra who gets married to a cruel chauvinist who plucks her from her life as a field worker, locks her inside their house, and refuses to let her leave. Through the efforts and encouragement of local revolutionaries who meet with her to teach her to read as part of Castro’s Cuban Literacy Campaign, she flees her husband and rejoins her proletariat sisters, only to stumble at the last moment and return to him, suggesting a perpetual cycle of abuse and abandonment.

Solás’ methods here are two-fold. First, it’s a broad metaphor for the gradual political awakening of the Cuban populace and how at different times, through both foreign intervention and domestic laxness, the forces of revolution were stymied and betrayed, further illustrated by the romantic relationships of the three Lucía’s. The first exists in a dreamworld of bourgeoisie splendor, one dominated by the Catholic church and suffocating sexual mores—a disturbing sequence where Lucía’s sewing circle is told the story of the gang-rape of several nuns by bandits is set to the sound of orgasmic sighing and moaning, leading us to wonder at the possible perversion of their repressed sexual longings. Despite having a brother fighting and dying for an independent Cuba, she’s incapable of feeling suspicion towards her dashing anonymous amour, even when he asks suspiciously pointed questions about the rebels. The second Lucía demonstrates the first sprouting of a political consciousness as she abandons her wealthy family, even taking a job laboring in a cigar factory to support herself when she gets pregnant. But the speed with which she and Aldo succumb to a life of luxury as part of the new Quesada regime suggests an inherent inattentiveness to the realities of foreign capitalist meddling, one that can only end in tragedy and violence. It’s only with the third Lucía—the first to be neither white nor from the upper classes—that we see a properly armed proletariat capable of perpetuating a properly motivated class consciousness among the workers. When this Lucía is locked up by her husband, she dreams not just of fleeing, but of returning to her role as a worker alongside the other women of her village, thereby equating violent machismo and institutionalized misogyny as literal counterrevolutionary forces.

Ultimately it’s Castro’s agents and her fellow women who free her. But it’s also their failed diligence which prevents her from returning. This jarring, unexpected ending is a blatantly didactic flourish on Solás’ part, a warning to his Cuban audiences that revolution can never be taken for granted and the forces of imperialism can return at the slightest sign of weakness.

But Solás’ second method is perhaps the more fascinating from the standpoint of viewers in this post-Castro political landscape—that of cinematic homage. The first two segments broadly borrow the styles and techniques of, respectfully, classic Hollywood studio films and the burgeoning European arthouse movement. The cinematography of the first section seems to ape the upper class opulence of Gregory La Cava or George Cukor with their lavishly detailed and lit interiors, meticulous attention to period costume and sets, and melodramatic acting. The climactic fight scene between the Spanish government and the rebels ripped straight from a Hollywood adventure movie, juxtaposing static long shots of cavalry charges with claustrophobic hand-held close-ups of hand-to-hand combat. The fighting is so unapologetically over-the-top it led critic Nora Sayre to comment in her original 1974 review in the New York Times that “what comes through is the glory of war, not its tragedy.” The second part consciously influenced by the likes of Michelangelo Antonioni with his preference for atmospheric long takes of characters brooding in silence, marinating in their own bourgeois ennui—Nunez’s disaffected narration increases the general sense of emotional detachment. Several scenes set on the beach feel as if Gabriele Ferzetti or Monica Vitti could wander into frame at any moment.

It’s in its third section that Solás attempts a distinctly Cuban film grammar, one liberally mixing varied cinematic techniques as well as embracing an explicit and unashamed sexuality avoided by the first two segments. There’s an inherent energy and kineticism leaking from these frames—even when the camera is static it seems like it’s being held in a pair of restless hands. But the film also demonstrates a heretofore unseen warmth towards the unwashed masses of the proletariat. Curiously, Solás depicts them in the first section as filthy, cruel monsters, as if they’re physical manifestations of the first Lucía’s prejudices against those of lower classes. In this last section we see the workers as people: hard-working, hard-loving people with their hearts on their sleeves, just as incapable of insincerity as they are of inauthenticity. This section is even narrated by a son cubano band whose singer ironically comments on the story. It’s here we see the birth of the Cuban cinema dreamed of by revolutionaries, one that would inspire generations of international filmmakers, resulting in a digital restoration that premiered in triumph at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival. Though long neglected, this restoration has made it possible for a new century of film buffs to appreciate this watershed moment in political filmmaking and Cuban national identity.

[The Metrograph theater in New York City is running an exclusive one-week revival of Lucía to celebrate its 50th anniversary running from September 28—October 4. Check their website for specific showtimes.]


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