Tomás Gutiérrez Alea came from a progressive middle-class family. Born in Havana in 1928, Alea experienced a vivid career, one closely tied to the history of his country. Fidel Castro was his classmate when he studied Law at the University of Havana, where he was already engaged in making films for the Communist Party. In 1951, he enrolled at Italy’s Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia, one of the first international film schools. There he received exposure to films from around the world. He returned to Cubato make the Neorealism-influenced El Megano; a film about the exploitation of charcoal burners. The film was seized by the authorities of Fulgencio Batista’s government after a screening at the University campus. In the years leading to the Cuban Revolution, Alea was employed making short documentaries for Television. Upon Castro’s victory, Alea was placed in charge of building Cuba’s national film institute – ICAIC (The Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry).
In his critical study of the director (Tomás Gutiérrez Alea: Dialectics of a Filmmaker), Paul Schroeder notes: “To view and study Alea’s films is to see revolutionary Cuba through the eyes of the island nation’s most important and consistently critical filmmaker.” Indeed Alea’s features from Stories of a Revolution to Death of a Bureaucrat and Memories of Underdevelopment present a distinct perspective on the Revolution and its aftermath. While committed to the cause, Alea was conscious that the success of the movement hadn’t transformed Cuba overnight. Remnants of pre-revolutionary cultural and class attitudes persisted in the New Cuba, especially among the urban educated elite from which Alea himself descended from. His most influential film Memories of Underdevelopment is celebrated for its ambivalent vision. It depicts the wanderings of a middle-class aesthete who remains in Cuba after his family leaves for Miami following Batista’s fall. He struggles to find a stable identity for himself, haunted by notions of “underdevelopment”, the feeling that he is out of place in the New Cuba.
Alea dabbled in a variety of genres. The 70s witnessed a turn to historical films. A Cuban Fight Against the Demons, made in 1972, portrayed 17th Century Cuba’s struggle against its Spanish masters. The ambitious The Last Supper (1976) brought to light Cuba’s troubled history, its involvement in the enslavement of African people. Up to a Certain Point, made in 1984 was a more personal endeavour. A documentary film-maker researching machismo in Cuban society faces a crisis after he falls in love with a working single-mother. The film returned to the theme of Memories of Underdevelopment in outlining an intellectual’s struggle in Communist Cuba. Personal illness halted Alea’s output in his final years. His final films were co-directed by Juan Carlos Tabío. Strawberry & Chocolate was Alea’s final popular success before his death in 1996, at the age of 67. It proved both controversial and popular in Cuba. Controversial for bringing to light Cuba’s institutionalized homophobia and popular for its lighthearted depiction of friendship between a young Communist student and an older homosexual intellectual living in Havana. The film made history as the first Cuban film to be nominated for an Oscar in the Best Foreign Film category.