Published August 1, 1997
Guantanamera is, I guess, a sort of Cuban communist version of such US movies as One Fine Day or that one with Nicholas Cage and Bridget Fonda about the cop who wins the lottery ( “We’re in the money” ? “Can’t buy me love” ? I can’t remember). In other words, it borrows the name of a popular song in the hope of borrowing also some of its popularity, even though the song has little to do with the movie. To do them credit, the late Thomás Gutiérrez Alea and Juan Carlos Tabio, who co-directed it, went to the considerable length of putting new words to the song describing the characters of the film, but I still think they might have done without it. For an American audience, at any rate, the song’s associations with the ’60s take us in quite the wrong direction.
This is rather a minor quibble, however, as we ought to be appreciative of the fact that here, at least, is a film for grown-ups that has somehow managed to slip through the distribution net—the means by which nearly everything that turns up at your local multiplex seems to be (because it is) made for children of 13. Aunt Yoyita (Conchita Brando) returns to Guantanamo, Cuba, from Havana after a 50 year career as an opera singer. Still waiting for her there is the old man who loved her before she left, Candido (Raul Eguren) and who has loved her for all those years. He finally tells her of his love, and she drops dead on the spot. The rest of the film is a sort of picaresque tale of the transportation of Aunt Yoyita’s body back across Cuba from Guantanamo to Havana, past a cross section of contemporary Cuban life along the way.
Yoyita’s niece, Georgina (Mirtha Ibarra) is married to an undertaker and party man, Adolfo (Carlos Cruz)—who is stuck being an undertaker because he has disgraced himself somehow. He sees Aunt Yoyita’s death as an opportunity to get back into the party’s good graces, since he has worked out a system of transporting the corpse from Guantanamo back to Havana which is more cheap and efficient than the system in use up until then. But he must prove its efficacy on Aunt Yoyita. His system involves a relay of hearses and split second timing, so the possibilities for comedy in a land where nothing goes according to schedule and everything breaks down are predictably vast. To add to the confusion, a former student of Georgina’s when she taught political economics at the university, Mariano (Jorge Perugorria), a man who always had a crush on her, is driving a truck along the same route.
Mariano qualified as an engineer, but he drives a truck because the pay is better. He is a real ladies’ man with a girl at every stop on the road, so he is always getting in trouble with the women at the same time as he is picking up and delivering people and contraband goods in the way that everybody, apparently, who travels the rural highways of Cuba learns to do. His driving companion, Ramon, sings the praises of “the road” where “anything goes” —including a girl at every stop. But, he says, it is important to have one woman who will look after you in your old age. “Only someone who really loves you will put up with you when you’re old.” And he tells the story of a friend of his who died without such a woman. Upon his death, all the women in his life got together and donated his body to a medical school for dissection.
A good lesson to remember! The film quickly sets up a contrast between the spontaneous, life-affirming personality of Mariano and the death associations of the petty-bureaucratic undertaker, Adolfo. “I want clockwork precision,” he says to his long-suffering driver, but with him the desire is a kind of desperate reaction to continual failure. At any rate, Georgina is caught in the middle between the two men and, with the negative example of Candido’s and Yoyita’s lifelong, unconsummated passion in front of her, she is transformed into free spirit and lover (presumably) of Mariano, while the officious little bureaucrat of a husband is ridiculed and humiliated all along the way.
The story and its moral are predictable, but the film is worth seeing for its portrait of life in Cuba under the dead hand of Castro’s bureaucracy. The implicit comparison between people who postpone their lives until they no longer have them to live and the country which must go on postponing prosperity and a better life for its people in the name of building socialism is intentional and points up the considerable ironies in such Castroite slogans as “Socialism or Death” or “The Time Has Come to Preserve Our Dreams.”