Alice in Wondertown a/k/a Alicia en el Pueblo de Maravillas is a quirky, low budget Cuban film that may or may not be a full throated critique of communism. Technically, the film is of low quality, but a passionate cast and a slightly disjointed outlook on the world of post-revolution Cuba makes it an interesting experience.
Alicia (Thais Valdes), our heroine, decides that she is bored with her current job, and perhaps her current boyfriend Serafin, and wants a change. She decides to take a job as a drama teacher in the small town of Maravillas, against the objections of Serafin and random men in the train station. Maravillas is one of those stereotypical "towns where no one goes". Indeed, the normal bus to the town is out of service indefinitely, and she has to hire a ride in a private car. Once she arrives, it is easy to see why no one would want to spend any time there. Everything is dirty, and sticky and decrepit. Flying trash, cast up and blown about the town on gusting winds, is ever present, getting caught on shoes and tangled in hair.
And it's not just the crumbling, trash strewn aspects of Maravillas that cause concern. The citizens of the town are suspicious, furtive and fearful. Not to mention cranky. Dulce, the clerk of the ill built, cockroach infested hotel where Alicia is to live, berates her for not knowing how to use the desk bell, which does not work like desk bells in hotels usually do. (You spin the nub at the top, not hit it.) When Alicia finally gets to her room, whose door has to be forced open, she finds she has received a note, made from cutting out letters from newspapers and magazines. It says, "If you want to live in this town you have to earn it." There are a lot of these notes in the film, to various people, and Alicia's provides one of the main themes of the film.
Maravillas is populated by those who have "earned it": those who have offended the central government or violated the sometimes obscure rules that govern their lives. In some cases, as with the deliveryman Candido, exile to Maravillas is due to actual lapses in judgment or serious misconduct. Other times the transgressions are as petty as buying meat on the black market or having the misfortune of a superior who doesn't like you.
Director Daniel Diaz Torres presents Maravillas as a dark, fun house mirror version of a communist paradise, with a strong dash of surrealism thrown in. As noted above, everything is horrifically filthy and crumbling. There are ridiculous public works plans, such as the "pig project", which appears to use rendered pig fat to plug potholes, and disturbing announcements on the ubiquitous public address system. The PA at one point declares, along with tinny martial music, "Children's day in Maravillas. Outdoor activities. Prizes galore. Punishments for the losers. Back to the music!" Outright propaganda, ham fisted cartoons, are shown at the cultural center in which Alicia works (which, incidentally, is housed in the sanatorium (of the nervous exhaustion variety) and conveniently places the oubliette right next to the rehearsal area.) Who wouldn't be moved by the following cheerily sung lyric? "Destiny is inevitable. Don't try to avoid it. Just accept it." Alicia tries to go against the grain in the oppressive, paranoid environment, and is inevitably slapped down, betrayed by the very people she has been trying to help.
The curious thing, to this reviewer anyway, is that Alice in Wondertown appears to be a full on satirical critique of Cuban communism. The film is quite funny, invariably at the expense of the authoritarian and oppressive government, and often poignant as it depicts the lives that are destroyed by the arbitrary cruelty of the nefarious director of the sanatorium and his henchmen. In an interview excerpt and a short essay included in a pamphlet that accompanies the disc, director Torres claims that it was just a way to "laugh at our own mistakes", a subtle dig at his homeland, but in no way a rebuttal of socialism. For a time at least, the Cuban government did not agree, as it banned the film for several years after it was released in 1991.
Regardless of what message the viewer takes away from Alice in Wondertown, it is worth the attention. The acting is excellent. It is not the heavy, emotion laden work of a serious drama, but the subtle comic exaggeration proper to satire. We empathize with even the minor characters who have little screen time in which to ingratiate themselves. The question of whether Alicia will ever be able to escape Maravillas, which is easy enough to enter but not to leave, draws the viewer in with the knowledge that in this type of dystopian film a happy ending is never assured. The story is engaging, funny and depressing all at once. The film's many technical deficiencies (which will be discussed further in a moment), the product of low budgets and other difficulties, detract from the experience of the film but do not destroy it. They are easy enough to forget as we move deeper into the story. Alice in Wondertown is an intriguing gem which rises above its budget. Check it out.
The video quality on Alice in Wondertown is not good, presumably because of difficulty in finding a good print. It is presented in 1.66:1 widescreen. Colors are washed out and drab. The video is murky and darkness often obscures the action completely. There are also a lot of artifacts on the print. Scratches and dirt are visible throughout almost the entire film.
The sound is Dolby 2 channel, and also not of high quality. It is often difficult to hear the dialogue. The only language track available is Spanish. Subtitles are in English and cannot be turned off. Also, it appears that these subtitles have been placed over another set of subtitles which must have been on the original print. These original subtitles have been obscured by fuzzing, similar to the face of someone being arrested on COPS. This is quite distracting at first, but one quickly becomes used to it.
The only extra on the disc itself is a short film, Paul Kopinzky, directed by Malte Ollroge. The short film is not related to Alice in Wondertown in any discernible way, except perhaps tenuously via thematic elements. Paul Kopinzky is quite short, and mildly entertaining. There is also a pamphlet insert that accompanies the disc that includes some contextual information, an excerpt of an interview with the director, and a short essay by him. There is also a statement about the film by the Cuban Film Institute (ICAIC). The information provided in the pamphlet does add significantly to the appreciation of the film.
Alice in Wondertown is an intriguing film. Its polemical message is somewhat ambiguous, with the director's stated intent at odds with the experience of the film itself. Regardless of what the true intent of the film is, it is an expertly executed cinematic achievement. The dark as pitch humor runs through the same ironic fields as Terry Gilliam, and with much the same effect. The film is flawed technically, which may have been unavoidable given the circumstances of its production and release. However, the performances and storytelling rise above these impediments and introduce the viewer to a scathingly funny view of modern (circa 1991) communist Cuba. The insight into the people and culture of the country at that time is presented effortlessly and effectively. This is definitely worth a viewing.