By Joel del Río
August 22, 2020
Translated and edited by Walter Lippmann for CubaNews.
I would like to explain that the title of this work has nothing to do with Leonardo Da Vinci’s famous fresco, nor is it related to any gloomy prediction for the Italian city also called La Serenissima. I am referring rather to a transcendent Cuban film, which has fortunately been restored, and will be exhibited with honors at the next Venice International Film Festival.
This year’s event, because of the physical distance, a very limited public of critics and a few foreign guests will attend. Meanwhile, this and other competitions, such as the one in Toronto, value the exhibition of the films through websites with streaming services, to be downloaded only by the people authorized to view them.
The digital restoration of The Last Supper, made by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea in 1976, will be screened as part of the Classics section in the 77th edition of the Venetian event, which will take place between September 2 and 12. The copy will have its world premiere at the Il Cinema Ritrovato (The Rediscovered Cinema) Festival in Bologna, which will take place from August 25th to 31st, and will also be added to the list of restored classics offered by Venice, under a collaboration agreement.
In the 34th edition of Il Cinema Ritrovato, not only the aforementioned work by Titón will be shown, but also two of his other films. All three have been restored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences of Los Angeles, USA, in collaboration with the Cuban Cinematheque: the short documentary El arte del tabaco (1974) and the feature film La muerte de un burócrata (1966), which was at the Mostra last year.
It is never pointless to reflect again on the merits of Cuban art, even when it is taken as a pretext at this moment in which two classic films attract the attention of the most prestigious film events and institutions in the world. It should be noted that both productions were prophets in their own land, and placed, in their own time, in the deserved places, thanks to the attention of the public and the critics.
The death of a bureaucrat was constructed as a buzzing mockery of the unbearable “traversed” in the normal development of society. It attacks the plague of schematic and inflexible officials that build the despair of the central character, and highlights the tragic chaos around a simple and essential procedure.
Considered one of the most eloquent cinematographic satires on the administrative inadequacies of any society, the film inaugurates critical realism with absurd and unreal touches that allowed the national cinematography to elude the narrow representational frameworks, sometimes imitative, of Italian neo-realism.
For its part, The Last Supper was first seen on November 3, 1977 in the Yara, Acapulco, Metropolitan, Monaco, Florida and City Hall theaters (how wonderful to have so many theaters on the premiere circuit). Among its many international awards are the Golden Hugo of the International Film Festival of Chicago, the Grand Prix at the Biarritz Ibero-American Film Festival, the Golden Columbus in Huelva, the distinction as outstanding film at the London Festival, best foreign film exhibited in Venezuela, Grand Prize at the Figueira Festival in Foz, Portugal; and winner of the Popular Jury in the II Muestra Internacional de Cine Sao Pablo.
Ten years after making the brilliant contemporary satire on the problems of bureaucracy in Cuba, Gutiérrez Alea made a foray into historical production with his first color film, La última cena (The Last Supper), inspired by an anecdote about a real event that appears in the book El ingenio (The Sugar Mill) by Manuel Moreno Fraginals.
He wrote an extensive and medullar study of the plantation economy in the era of slavery in Cuba. While the action took place at the end of the 18th century in a sugar mill, the advice given by the historian to the filmmaker was very important. He also had the help of the knowledge of specialists such as Rogelio Martínez Furé and Nitza Villapol, because it also told the story of a rich count, very religious, who gathers 12 slaves and invites them to dinner, in the way of a similar invitation narrated in the Bible.
During dinner, which takes up most of the footage, the count talks to his servants and tries to explain to them the principles of humility and resignation that guide the Catholic religion. The slaves, convinced of their goodwill, decide not to work the next day and thus a repression is unleashed with tragic consequences.
It is a temporary analysis of power and dependence, because, as the director stated to Gerardo Chijona in the interview published in the magazine Cine Cubano number 93: “…a historical film, for me, is not to reconstruct in a spectacular way the fact itself. I’m not interested in archaeological work, but rather in taking advantage of history at some point because of the repercussions that this can have on the present.
Editor Nelson Rodríguez told the Cubasí website: “The filming of the dinner sequence was a real challenge in terms of staging, it lasted about four weeks and was shot continuously, that is, in order, almost in real-time. It was really a challenge, because the continuity demanded special care in all the elements, from the care with the candles, the food, the wines and of course the work of the actors. The edition was a real feast, because there was not the slightest error in the setting or in the continuity”.
In this respect, it is worth adding that in the famous long sequence the director films the table from the front, with the count in the middle, and resorts to a backward movement, and then a forward movement in the camera, as if to emphasize the theatrical air of the representation and the pictorial reference in Da Vinci’s painting.
It is unlikely that the director attempted a diatribe against Catholic ideology. Rather, I believe that he intended to question, indirectly, all the usual manipulations of the powerful, with respect to a certain idealistic and egalitarian rhetoric. His goal was to confirm in the background the predominance of the ruling class over a group that he considers inferior and anonymous.
So when the count refers to the acceptance of sacrifice and suffering, he never thinks of adopting that philosophy himself, but of having it endorsed by the slaves, forced to assent to their subordinate condition. This and other reflections come from one of the most brilliant and intelligent films ever made in Cuba. Now it can be enjoyed again in a good copy.
Since I am not invaded by the diagonal chauvinism of reporting on an event as enormous as the Venice International Film Festival only from the perspective of Cuban participation, we would at least like to point out that in the official section, where the premieres of the great filmmakers compete, among others, the Japanese master of horror Kiyoshi Kurosawa (The Spy’s Woman), the new revelation of Polish auteur cinema, Malgorzata Szumowska (It Will Never Snow Again), the world’s most acclaimed Israeli filmmaker, Amos Gitai (Laila in Haifa), the several times acclaimed Russian director Andrei Konchalovsky (Dear Friends), and the Iranian master of neo-realistic melodrama starring children, Majid Majidi (Children of the Sun).
In short, Cuban cinema continues to occupy prestigious spheres, because beyond the honors given to two essential classics. Itt was also announced a few days ago that the independent production Agosto, directed by debutant Armando Capó, will represent us in the 24th edition of the Lima Film Festival, which this year will also have an online version, due to the coronavirus, from the 21st to the 30th of this month.
In the same event, the documentary A media voz, co-directed by Heidi Hassán and Patricia Pérez, will be shown via internet throughout Peru, and will finally be released in Spain as part of the official selection of the Malaga Festival, on August 23rd in the Echegaray Theater.
Both Agosto and A Media Voz have gone through a long list of important international contests, and both were awarded with top choirs in their respective categories (debut opera and documentary) at the most recent Festival de La Habana. Cuban cinema does not live by past glories alone.