Watching Cuba – An Introduction to Cuban Cinema
Over the last 60 years cinema has arguably become one of Cuba’s cultural fortes. With its own international film school and a host of annual international film festivals, Cuba is a Latin American cinema hub.
Cuba – A Culture of Cinema
Cuba’s Escuela Internacional de Cine y TV was founded in 1986 by the Nobel prize winning Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez along with a team of Cuban, Argentinian and Brazilian film makers. The school was created as a space for Latin American, Asian and African students to produce films which actively promotes inclusion and better reflects the world’s cultural diversity. It differs from traditional film schools in that all the teaching is done by active professionals, as opposed to professional teachers. In the last 34 years La Escuela Internacional de Cine y TV has become respected and revered not only in Latin America, but the world over.
Once known as the “Festival de Cine Pobre” (low budget film festival), Cuba’s Gibara International Film Festival takes place in the summer months on the island’s north-eastern coast. The festival was created in 2003 by Cuban film maker Humberto Solás to celebrate low budget cinema. For one week every summer the small coastal town of Gibara – much battered over the years by hurricanes – is transformed into a colourful point of convergence for film buffs and creatives from all over the world.
The Latin American Film Festival is held in Havana every December and shows films from Cuba, Latin America and beyond. All films have English subtitles, making it the perfect festival for visiting enthusiasts. Despite its international programme, the Cuban films are the real protagonists for this film loving nation.
18 Cuban Films – Your Cuban Cinematic Odyssey
With such a rich culture of cinema in Cuba, there’s no shortage of films to watch. We’ve put together a list of just 18 great Cuban movies – sorted chronologically and most of which are made in Cuba – to get you started.
Soy Cuba (I am Cuba), Mikhail Kalatozov, 1964
Despite its obvious political intentions, Cuban-Soviet production “Soy Cuba” is a magnificent time capsule of early 1960s Cuba. Its pioneering filming techniques are also dazzling to behold. Long forgotten until it was rediscovered and promoted by American director Martin Scorsese in the 1990s, Soy Cuba has become a classic of Cuban cinema.
Top tip: The pool in the opening shot is at the Hotel Capri, where many tourists still stay today.
Lucia, Humberto Solás, 1968
From the director who founded the Gibara Film Festival, “Lucia” is one of Cuba’s most iconic films. Lucia follows the story of three Cuban women named Lucia: one during the Cuban war of independence from Spain, one during Machado’s governance in the 1930s and one in 1960s, socialist Cuba. Lucia won the Golden Prize at the Moscow International Film Festival in 1969.
Death of a Bureaucrat, Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, 1966
When Tío Paco dies he is buried with his working man’s card, the same card that allows his widow to claim her pension. In order to retrieve the card and gain the much-needed funds, the widow and her nephew have to jump through an unimaginable amount of hoops (including buying his body back from the state). This classic Cuban comedy pokes fun at communist bureaucracy and is still as relevant today as it was 54 years ago.
Memories of Underdevelopment, Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, 1968
Memories of Underdevelopment follows middle-class writer Sergio, who chooses to stay in Cuba even when everyone around him is leaving. Sergio looks back over the political events that have come to shape his life and reflects on choosing to remain in underdevelopment. Memories of Underdevelopment was shown as part of the Cannes Classics section at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival.
Top Tip: Sergio’s spacious apartment is in the towering FOCSA building in the Vedado district of Havana. You can go to the top of the building and enjoy fantastic views from La Torre restaurant.
Vampires in Havana, Juan Padrón, 1985
An animated film narrated by a host of famous Cuban actors, Vampires in Havana is still a favourite on the island. Set in 1930s Havana, two rival international vampire cartels are vying to be the sole sellers of “Vampisol”, a new formula that helps vampires resist the fatal glare of sunlight. Vampires in Havana is a real cult classic and a riotous laugh from start to finish.
La Bella del Alhambra (The Beauty of the Alhambra), 1989, Enrique Pineda Barnet
One of Cuba’s most successful films both nationally and internationally, The Beauty of the Alhambra is based on a Cuban novel called “Rachel’s Song” by Miguel Barnet. Protagonist Rachel is an ambitious cabaret dancer in 1920/30s Havana desperate to leave the chorus and be the main event – the vedette – at the famous Teatro Alhambra.
Fresa y Chocolate (Strawberry and Chocolate), Tomás Gutiérrez Alea and Juan Carlos Tabío, 1994
Arguably one of the best known Cuban films of modern times, “Fresa y Chocolate” is a must-see. An intellectual coming of age story, Fresa y Chocolate revolves around an unlikely friendship between young communist student David, and gay artist, Diego. It was nominated for an Academy Award in 1995 and catapulted Jorge Perrugorría (who plays Diego) from relative obscurity to national stardom.
Top Tip: Diego’s apartment building in the film is now trendy restaurant La Guarida. Not only does La Guarida offer great food surrounded by real props from the film, it also has a wonderful roof terrace with views across Havana.
Buena Vista Social Club, Wim Wenders, 1999
Can you think of a better combination than Wim Wenders and Cuba? This my friends, is where it all started: the Buena Vista Social Club sensation. Need I say more? This is a love story to Cuba’s astonishingly rich musical heritage.
Top Tip: Though few original members remain, you can still have a great night out and hear some fantastic traditional Cuban music at the Buena Vista Social Club show in Old Havana.
Suite Habana, 2003, Fernando Pérez
Though already 17 years old, “Suite Habana” is still celebrated in Cuba as one of the best films of recent years. A documentary filmed like fiction, Suite Habana follows the lives of ten ordinary Cubans of different ages and occupations, from a young dancer to an old woman who rarely moves from her place in front of the TV. Reminiscent of David Linklater‘s Slacker, Suite Habana offers an unfiltered look into everyday life in 2003 Cuba.
Un Rey en La Habana (A King in Havana), 2005, Alexis Valdés
Written, directed and starring Cuban comedian Alexis Valdés, “Un Rey en La Habana” is an unendingly silly comedy that pokes fun at Cuban society in the early 2000s. Protagonist Pepito is still in love with his childhood sweetheart Yoli, but she is set to marry on old rich Spanish man who will take her out of Cuba. Things go awry when Yoli’s husband-to-be dies and faithful Pepito is asked to assume the old man’s identity, return to Spain and bring back the old man’s riches.
Viva Cuba, Juan Carlos Cremata and Iraida Malberti Cabrera, 2005
A moving drama based on a fierce friendship between two children, Malú and Jorgito. When Malú’s mum announces that she has married a foreigner and they will be leaving Cuba, Jorgito and Malú conspire to stop Malú from having to leave. They set out on a journey across Cuba to find Malú’s father and convince him not to sign the paperwork allowing his ex-wife to take Malú out the country. “Viva Cuba” was awarded the Grand Prix Écrans Juniors at Cannes Film Festival in 2005.
La Noche de los Inocentes (Feast of the Holy Innocents), Arturo Sotto Díaz, 2007
A young man is dumped in front of a hospital by a transvestite late at night on 28 December (the feast of the holy innocents) badly beaten up. Through the course of the night the victim’s hospital room is flooded with family, friends, a nurse and an ex-policeman. No one is above suspicion as they chaotically rumble towards the truth of what happened to Federico.
Los dioses rotos (Broken Gods), Ernesto Daranas Serrano, 2008
Broken Gods follows university professor Laura as she delves into the world of modern Cuban prostitution, while researching for her thesis on Prostitution before the Revolution. Writer and director Daranas Serrano challenges our inbuilt prejudices on class, privilege and what is right and wrong. Though not as visually developed as his following film, “Conducta”, Broken Gods is urgent and compelling.
Juan of the Dead, Alejandro Brugués, 2010
The Cuban answer to Shaun of the Dead, “Juan of the Dead” is a weird and wonderful zombie romp set in Havana. In this uniquely Cuban comedy even Havana’s prized building the Capitolio isn’t safe from zombie (or ‘dissident’) attack. A great laugh and a must-see.
Habanastation, Ian Padrón, 2011
This film explores social inequality in modern Cuba. When middle-class schoolboy Mayito gets lost on a 1st of May march he ends up in the poor neighbourhood of “La Tinta” near Revolution Square. He bumps into a classmate and when a PlayStation breaks, the two boys from different social classes are pushed together in a misadventure.
Top Tip: There is a march at Revolution Square in Havana every 1st May, drawing massive crowds.
7 Days in Havana, Various, 2012
7 Days in Havana is a compilation of 7 different short films by 7 different directors, all written by renowned Cuban author Leonardo Padura. Though each segment is a story in its own right, characters interweave throughout it creating a depiction of an interconnected Havana. Many Cubans and film critics have scoffed at some of the film’s more stereotypical story lines, but 7 Days in Havana is still a great introduction to Havana and Cuba in general.
Conducta (Behaviour), Ernesto Daranas Serrano, 2014
“Conducta” premiered in early 2014 and was an instant hit amongst Cubans. Conducta follows the story of “Chala”, a vulnerable schoolboy on the brink of being sent to military school. Not only does the film offer spectacular shots of Old Havana, it also gives a clear insight into the very real problems experienced by the city’s most marginalised children. None of the children who act in the film were professional actors and many came from the same kinds of backgrounds being depicted in the film.
Inocencia (Innocence), Alejandro Gil, 2018
A big hit at the 2019 Latina American Film Festival in Havana, “Inocencia” tells the true story of 8 medical students who were unfoundedly incarcerated and murdered by the Spanish colonial authorities in 1871. Years later, Fermín Valdés Domínguez, a contemporary of the murdered students, is fighting to prove their innocence.
Top Tip: You can visit a monument dedicated to the medical students in Colon Cemetery in the Nuevo Vedado district of Havana.
Travelling to Cuba from your couch? Spoiled for Choice
We started off wanting to make a list of 10 great Cuban films, but found there were just too many to allow for such a narrow choice. These 18 films are by no means the only Cuban films worth watching, but they’re a good place to start your odyssey through Cuban cinema.