This extraordinary but enjoyable film was made by one of the leading figures in post-revolutionary Cuban Cinema, Julio García Espinosa (born 1926). He was one of the few Cuban directors in 1960 to have been formally trained and became one of the founding members of ICAIC, the Cuban Film Institute. In 1969 he wrote a famous essay on the concept of ‘imperfect cinema‘. Up until his retirement in 2007 he was the Director of the International Film and Television School in Cuba. There is a useful Jump Cut essay by Anna Marie Taylor that analyses the film in terms of imperfect cinema. This is quite a detailed essay and so here I’ll just try to introduce the film in relatively simple terms. It is now available on both Region 1 and Region 2 DVDs. My comments refer to the Region 2 disc from Network, a company specialising in archive UK TV material, but presumably with a deal covering material from the old East German studio DEFA as well as ICAIC.
The film opens in Black & White CinemaScope and immediately made me think of Sam Fuller’s Forty Guns (1957) with small groups of horsemen riding over rolling hills in long shot. But instead of Barbara Stanwyck in leathers we eventually get introduced to Juan and his sidekick Jachero. With some interesting graphics in the title sequence and a score by the leading Afro-Cuban musician Leo Brouwer, my first guess was that this was some kind of Cuban take on the ‘spaghetti western’. It takes a few moments to realise that it is not going to be a linear narrative as we switch between several different ‘adventures’ with the same three or four central characters in each (Juan and Jachero, the heroine Teresa and the moustachioed villain). There are also mismatches between sound and image, jump cuts transforming characters and objects etc.
I watched it with Nick and we were both puzzled for a while until we got into it and began to deconstruct the film. Clearly we have a traditional Spanish hero and his partner – a kind of peasant version of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza or perhaps the Cisco Kid and Pancho. The sequences are shown out of presumed chronological order, but we are offered Juan and Jachero in various situations in which they are forced to challenge an oppressor (the same villain) in the role of police chief/mayor/sugar mill owner etc. as well as stand up to the Church. Eventually they will join the revolutionary guerillas and take part in the capture of a village (in a sequence offered as a training film – even though our heroes are sometimes quite inept). The situations are typical of a colonised culture (staging a bull fight) and the presentation modes act as a critique of conventional genre films (including a kind of spoof James Bond, complete with ‘oriental villain’). But overall the film remains a comedy and we laughed on several occasions. According to some commentators this was the most successful Cuban film of the time attracting 2 million admissions – a very large figure given the population of Cuba (around 10 million) in the 1960s.
The concept of imperfect cinema refers to the need to steer revolutionary film away from the ‘perfection’ of Hollywood cinema and its ‘closed’ narratives with conventional genres and character types. It is better for audiences to have to do some work to ‘finish off’ the story, providing their own insights. This is similar in some ways to the ideas behind Brecht’s approach to theatre. ‘Imperfect’ does not imply, as detractors might claim, an impoverished and amateurish low-budget cinema. ICAIC budgets were not large, but the films were well-made and looked and sounded fine. Taylor’s essay suggests that Juan’s adventures might have proved popular, but that they were unlikely to have had the political impact that Espinosa called for two years later. (She suggests Espinosa’s 1970 film about Vietnam was more successful in these terms – but it is not available on DVD.)
Another Jump Cut resource is this translation of Espinosa’s essay on imperfect cinema by Julianne Burton.
Quite a good overview of different periods of Cuban film is available on FilmReference.com