Made in 1966, it took this film until 1980 to be released in America (see below) – as with this post, see the other Cuban films below! Made by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, who much later went on to make Fresa y chocolate (1994), the first Cuban film to receive an Oscar nomination for the best foreign film, the film is a fantastic blend of all kinds of influences that reflect Alea’s own career up to that point and post-revolutionary Cuba. As interesting, especially when you read other reviews, is the varied responses to the film that seem to say as much about the culture that people are writing from, as any intended effect or message devised by the filmmaker himself. Alea, himself a supporter of the revolution that brought Castro to power, did not look at his culture from within. Early in his career, he studied film in Italy (in the early 1950s – post the major works of Italian Neo-Realism).
La Muerte concerns the death of a dedicated working man, so dedicated that he has been buried with his working card as a symbolic acknowledgement of his lifetime of service (churning out busts of José Martí, ‘the Apostle of Cuban Independence’). When his wife, accompanied by her nephew, goes to collect her widow’s pension, nothing can be done without the missing card, and the rest of the film is the tale of our hapless hero’s attempts to retrieve it and to rectify the injustice that has been done.
Given the specificity of the film’s time and cultural place, the expectation is that you would need to explore all the references to even begin to fully understand it. Certainly, it’s filled with in-jokes about the regime in Cuba, which is apparently why its release in the US was so substantially delayed (for fear that its Latin-American self criticism would be grist to the US political mill). In fact, it works brilliantly now – perhaps for any of us who have experienced petty bureaucratic frustrations and the apparently wilful misinterpretation made by people with that authority (temporarily) over you. Hang on – something like a universal experience there then!
I won’t pretend to even begin to have understood all the references, but I was struck (as an outsider) by the nephew’s regular use of of the word “Compañero/ Compañera” when addressing (politely) the increasing stream of uncooperative, disinterested bureaucrats he encounters. It implied a shared vision and belief and therefore added to the humour through its increasing dissonance with their behaviour. The whole film begins with the collective version of the noun to address the mourners at the funeral. Reading a variety of reviews, there is a difference in the interpretation of the tone – from interpreting it as being a gentler kind of humour to a subversive critique of the Cuban social structure. The film certainly resonates with British examples, probably more in the former category, which lampoon British rituals and empathising with the common man (of which the nephew is a perfect example). Immediately, I found myself reminded of Joe Orton and Loot – with its ascerbic, farcical treatment of a funeral that’s being used as a cover for a robbery. The black comedy is less severe in Death, although at times no less dark – with the vultures circling over the uncle’s house where the unburied body awaits an exhumation order. Both indulge in that ‘comedy of manners’ where characters are increasingly going through the motions of the behaviour expected of them, while everything unravels underneath. (There is no surprise at the nephew’s final murderous chase through the cemetery).
Rather than ‘Ortonesque’, critics refer to it as ‘Kafkaesque’ – because of its links with the spiral of hopelessness of Joseph K in The Trial within the ‘corridors of power.’ However, this belies the effect of the humour (in both Loot and Death) that casts something like tolerance over the society it represents. It is humour shared by insiders, who have experienced those rituals and problems and continue to do so, without the threat to individual identity and the real hatred of the power of oppression that Kafka shows in his narrative.
Alea had adapted a Kafka short tale early in his filmmaking (Una Confusión cotidiana (1950)). His biography demonstrates the wealth of influences in his work and these are visible even within this one work. Luis Buñuel is referenced and there is a surreal, absurdist sensibility running throughout. However, there is the silent comedy style (Mack Sennett is referred to) – and there is a direct hit on Harold Lloyd as the nephew attempts to escape a building via its high ledge and a large clock. The comedy is played with such sympathy (my limited reference palette wants to suggest ‘Chaplin’) – because of the way we are completely on the side of the little man, whilst laughing at some of his disasters. There is a wonderful moment when he is sent to the back of the queue, only to reach the front as the clock ticks onto five. The current ‘compañero’ dons jacket and disappears, refusing to stamp even one more sheet. I laughed at and with – Salvador Wood’s unassuming underdog was perfect, with all kinds of small nuances of expression and gesture that communicated exactly his response or emotion.
I’ll end with a reference to B. Ruby Rich’s review of the film in Jump Cut (22 May 1980) for a most comprehensive analysis of the film and its cultural context.