The work of Tomàs Gutiérrez Alea

Born in 1928 in Havana, Cuba, the place where he lived and died, the artist Tomás Gutiérrez Alea is remembered today as one of the most recognizable Cuban filmmakers of his time. After earning a degree in law at the University of Havana in 1951, Alea moved to Rome and studied film at Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia, where he graduated in 1953; this is where many Cuban filmmakers studied before the existence of the Instituto Cubano del Arte e Industria Cinematográficos (ICAIC). Alea was the first Cuban director to be nominated for an Oscar, he was nominated for his film Strawberry and Chocolate (1993). Alea was very widely acclaimed for having written and directed over twenty films commenting on Cuban society, utilizing Third Cinema themes. 

Back in Cuba, Alea’s early films were produced independently from any film organization or production company, this is because his early work was produced before the Cuban government created the ICAIC after the revolution in 1959. The ICAIC will help filmmakers create films that with the purpose of educating its viewers. An example of one of his early works includes Una Confusión Cotidiana (1950), which is a short film directed by both Alea and Néstor Almendros, this film is an adaptation of a Franz Kafka story. Alea referred to this project as being a simple essay and that taught him new ways to develop comedy. He shared once in an interview, “that story allowed me to play with the absurd and offered me many possibilities to develop a kind of simple, simple comedy” (Alea).

Third Cinema is created by the by the people it is for. Representation, showing an accurate depiction of ones people, is a major aspect of Third Cinema. Written by Alea, The Viewer’s Dialectic shares that cinema can either take one of two paths, a film can either be a “popular” or it can be “true.” He explains that “popular” film is at it purest created with the purpose of serving as a commodity, and opposing the people’s film is a documentation of a “‘true’ documentation of certain aspects of reality.” The purpose of Third Cinema is to be true, not to be popular; this explains why Third Cinema films are created purposefully using aesthetics not popular in Hollywood films. These are two different paths, with different goals as to the outcome of its reception. Unlike Hollywood films which are “popular” films made to be commodities, Third Cinema films are meant to be “true” films made to portray the real stories of the people it is for. 

Another early piece is titled El mégano (1955), which was co-directed by Alea and Julio García Espinosa. This film is a semi-documentary which shows a glimpse of pre-revolution Cuba. In his manifesto, An Esthetic of Hunger, Glauber Rocha wrote that “Cinema Nova is an ongoing process of exploration that is making our thinking clearer, freeing us from the delebritating delirium of hunger,” these ideas are emulated and materialized in El mégano. Dialogue in this film is sparse and shortly shared, this draws attention to the long and slow movements of the workers as they navigate through the swamp and the overall cinematography. 

The above frame, depicting people working, shows that the lower quality film stock of El mégano created an interesting visual texture, especially in the contrast between the grass and the swamp. The film uses musical motifs to differentiate between characters and classes, such as the workers, the bosses, or the upper class in the boat. The long, slow takes illustrate the grueling, tedious work of digging in the swamp for charcoal. The influence of Italian Neorealism is present in much of the work of Alea including El mégano. The film succeeds in “making the public aware of its own misery” as Rocha describes in his manifesto. The film uses real workers instead of professional actors, which lends the film authenticity. Alea created films to comment on the climate of society to the time current of its release, writer Julia Levin once said that “Alea’s films are a primary source of cultural politics in revolutionary Cuba” (Levin). 

Death of a Bureaucrat synopsis from Letterboxd: 


A young man attempts to fight the system in an entertaining account of bureaucracy amok and the tyranny of red tape. Restored by the Academy Film Archive and the Instituto Cubano del Arte e Industrias Cinematográficos in 2019.

Created by Alea, Death of a Bureaucrat (1966) follows the story of a a nephew as he navigates affairs after the death of his uncle and faces absurd obstacles. The film is a social comedy which practices surrealist elements. This film shares the same composer, Leo Brouwer, as a number of Alea’s other works including Memories of Underdevelopment (1968). Brouwer is remembered for having been the composer for many Third Cinema films, including the film Lucia (1968), which was directed by Humberto Solás and is also from Cuba. 

It becomes clear in the opening title sequence that this film is a comedy because of the music used and the sounds of the typewriter. The sequence very aptly sets the mood for the story that is about to be told. The use of the typewriter is a very creative way to share the opening credits. The sounds from the typewriter halt the music; in this scene, the music will play for a bit, then it will cut to the sounds of the typewriter and this pattern will keep repeating as you watch the credits being typed in the form of a letter. This disturbs the cinematic experience, and forces the audience to read the names of everyone involved in its production. We learn that it is likely Alea himself writing, because at the end of this sequence he signs the letter with his credit as director of the film. 

Death of a Bureaucrat has a lot of absurd humor placed throughout the film. I found the scene near the beginning of the funeral particularly interesting because the narrative pauses for humor. There is a bit from the funeral, and then a bit from the animation of the machine, using a combination of drawings and photo cut-outs, where there are no diegetic elements tying them together. The animation is a separate excerpt from the narrative, but the humor it brings is important to this film. The scene where a scream turns into a siren is a small bizarre addition to other humorous moments in the film. I like the satirical element in the building and played out in the scene where the nephew initially goes to get the exhumation permit. The process that the character had to go through was extremely tedious and absurd and the humor made it translate to me that it was clear the nephew thought so too, because he does not protest against much throughout the film but the humor made it clear that he thought this process was ludicrous.

There are two surrealist dream sequences that break the diegesis and reveals into the experience of the nephew. The first dream sequence shows the nephew circling on a carousel, this could serve to symbolize that he is trapped in a cycle that is the dynamic between the people and bureaucrats. After each dream, the nephew awakes even more discombobulated and exhausted. These jarring sequences offer a disturbance to becoming a passive viewer and are in a way disconnected from the rest of the story which unfolds sequentially. 

Devout to cinema, Alea included many different aesthetics and film practices which symbiotically shaped his career and Cuban cinema. There are many different themes and aesthetics synonymous to Alea’s style. Levin wrote on Alea that “artistically and intellectually, the trajectory of Cuban cinema – from cinéma vérité to experimentalism, and from neorealist drama to social comedy – has paralleled the trajectory of Alea’s directorial career” (Levin). It is a belief at the ICAIC that one must first be able to depict reality through documentary to be able to create fiction. Based on the chronology of the release of his work, Alea suitably prompted this advice. The film Death of a Bureaucrat is an example of a Third Cinema film that is easily accessible to understand and enjoy. Though its satire could be misinterpreted by foreign audiences as anti-communist criticism, much like his film Memories of Underdevelopment. This film brings attention to the absurdities created by the bureaucracy and reveals this in fashion accessible to most viewers without taking away from its purpose of serving as film for the people. 

Works Cited

Alea, Tomàs Gutiérrez. Death of a Bureaucrat. 1966.

Alea, Tomàs Gutiérrez. El mégano. 1955

Alea, Tomàs Gutiérrez. Memorias del subdesarrollo. 1968.

Alea, Tomàs Gutiérrez. Strawberry and Chocolate. 1993.

Alea, Tomàs Gutiérrez. The Viewer’s Dialectic

Alea, Tomàs Gutiérrez. Una Confusión Cotidiana. 1950.

Death of a Bureaucrat. Letterboxd.

Levin, Julia. Alea, Tomás Gutiérrez. October 2003.

Rocha, Glauber. An Esthetic of Hunger. 1965. Solás, Humberto. Lucia. 1968.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: