Part of the ongoing collaboration between North American distrib First Run Features and German production house DEFA-Ice Storm The Cuban Masterworks Collection offers five classic films from the communist island in the following order:
1. The Twelve Chairs directed by Tomas Gutierez Alea (1962)
Based on the novel by Soviet writer Ilya Ilf The Twelve Chairs follows the unusual story of an old chair containing the jewels of a wealthy Cuban woman who reveals an intriguing secret moments before she dies. The secret of course has to do with the location of the chair which has been confiscated by the communists after the Revolution and misplaced together with eleven more chairs sharing similar design. A maddening search for the one begins leading to some awkward and often hilarious situations culminating in a finale with a special message.
2. The Adventures of Juan Quin Quin directed by Julio Garcia Espinosa (1967)
Based on the novel by Cuban writer Samuel Feijoo the film examines the spiritual transformation of a poor man (Julio Martinez) who lives in pre-revolutionary Cuba making ends meet as a bullfighter, circus actor, coffee-planter, and eventually a traveling actor impersonating Jesus. When Castro's rebels begin to gain momentum the peasant joins the revolutionary movement in an attempt to rebuild his life.
3. Cecilia directed by Humberto Solas (1981)
Set in 1830 Cuba the film traces the impossible affair between a rich colonial nobleman and a poor but proud mulatto woman. The duo is unable to survive the pressure from the man's father who insists that he must marry a girl with an appropriate background and eventually their love erodes into detestation. The consequences are devastating for the couple as well as those around them.
4. Amada directed by Humberto Solas (1982)
Set in 1914 Havana Amada tells the tragic story of an unhappily married woman (Eslinda Nunez) who falls madly in love with her young cousin (Cesar Evora) and eventually faces an impossible dilemma. Amada's heart is torn between following the one she loves and staying together with the one she belongs to.
5. A Successful Man directed by Humberto Solas (1986).
Perhaps the most complex picture in this commemorative set of Cuban classics A Successful Man observes the history of two brothers caught in a race against time. Set in pre-revolutionary Cuba the story juggles between the two men, one of them a dedicated communist the other a corrupt statesman, delivering an engrossing look at a country on the verge of imminent chaos.
Providing a long-overdue look at the cinematic history of Cuba The Cuban Masterworks Collection offers to North American film aficionados an excellent opportunity to learn more about a country, its people, and culture often kept in the shadows as a result of an unfortunate political regime. It is apparent from the five films in this boxset that despite of the ongoing political stagnation during the years Cuban directors have been successful in expressing approval and disappointment from the official regime in a way quite similar to that witnessed in the works of Eastern European and Soviet filmmakers from the Cold War era. From classic themes of love and yearning intertwined with easy to see through politically-charged messages (Amada/Cecilia) to a revealing examination of an elite slowly disintegrating on the inside (A Successful Man) to inquisitive jabs at religion in favor of compromised political ideals (The Adventures of Juan Quin Quin) the films in this collection indeed represent a piece of history, a piece of Cuba.
In the heart of each of the five films however lies the desire to be as illuminating about Cuban culture as possible. The delicacy with which human emotions are being observed (Cecilia) often reveal more than what a thousand shots from beautiful Havana would. In each of the films there is passion, anger, and plenty of racy Cuban temperaments to remind the viewer about the true nature of those whose stories are being told (Amada). In Garcia Espinosa's The Adventures of Juan Quin Quin for example the main protagonist could easily be seen as an embodiment of his troubled country: filled with elation, sobered by pain, grounded by disappointment.
Depending on how one chooses to see and consequently read the five films in this commemorative collection one is likely to be both fascinated and disturbed at the same time. Fascinated because each of the films offers an array of colorful characters with rich and entertaining stories; disturbed because it is a great shame to see such powerful works buried under political demagogy.
How Does the DVD Look and Sound?
I have decided to approach this set in a very uncharacteristic for TALK fashion. I realize that many may not be as forgiving as I am (I shall explain why later) but I am willing to take my chances. I must encourage you to think about why some of the presentations here are not as solid as you might expect them to be. Furthermore, you must be willing to consider the fact that many of the films reviewed here were likely derived from secondary prints and the original masters (which I would think are kept somewhere in Cuba) are quite possibly in terrible condition.
Disc 1. The Twelve Chairs:
Even though various sources list the original aspect ratio for this film as being 1.85:1, including its distributor, the actual presentation is in approximately 1.74:1 letterboxed format. This being said, the image quality is rather shaky. In fact it is fairly easy to see that this is yet another PAL-NTSC port with plenty of ghosting and combing. The blacks and whites are handled rather well as I did not notice any substantial issues and for the most part the print appears in acceptable condition. Edge-enhancement however should be of concern to those with more sensitive set-ups and especially the ghosting mentioned above remains something I am not content with. Add to the mix the lack of 16/9 enhancement and this truly is a problematic print.
Presented with its original Spanish mono track and optional English white subtitles the audio presentation is slightly above average. The dialog is easy to follow and music appears free of any intrusive pop-ups or hissing yet there is something here that for the most part prevents the viewer from being completely immersed in the story. For what its worth I could tell that substantial restoration work has not been performed!
The only extras found on this disc are two very short pieces titled "Triada: Excerpts from Cuban Films with comments from Cuban Filmmakers" and "The Unknowns of ICAIC". Both of those offer only a few minutes of generic footage and some sporadic comments from the participants. In addition, there is a photo gallery and a text-biography for the director.
Disc 2. The Adventures of Juan Quin Quin:
Presented in aspect ratio of 2.35:1 but not enhanced for widescreen TV's the print provided by First Run Features reveals plenty of debris, scratches, and marks. The blacks and whites generally speaking are acceptable but there is a very strong edge-enhancement effect here that further lowers the quality of the print. By all means this is a watcahble print but when you add to the mix the fact that it is also a PAL-NTSC port then on top of everything else mentioned above one must deal with the ghosting as well.
Presented with its original Spanish mono track the film sounds well and I did not detect any areas of concern here. Once again dialog is easy to follow and music for the most part is treated rather well. With optional white English subtitles.
The only worthy of your attention extra on this disc is a very short segment titled " Cubans Experience the Medium of Film for the First Time" where archival footage of mobile cinemas is shown while a narrator explains its significance for those Cuban living in the remote areas of the island. In addition, there is a photo gallery and a text-format director's biography.
Disc 3. Cecilia
Presented in an aspect ratio of 1.85:1 but not enhanced for widescreen TV's the print for this film reveals plenty of issues. There are multiple scratches and debris and the color system appears noticeably washed-out. Furthermore, I noticed some consistent flickering throughout the film, most notably in the upper right corner, which appears to be indeed part of the print. Aside from that contrast isn't great either and I have every reason to believe that a secondary analog master was used for the production of this disc.
The film is presented with a Spanish DD track and optional white English subtitles which are quite well done. I did not detect any disturbing audio issues to report here however it must be noted that the audio mix is quite uneven suggesting that restoration work has not been performed.
The only supplemental materials on this DVD are a photo gallery and a text-format director's bio in addition to a very short segment titled "In Which Cuban actresses are presented" where under some archival footage notable actors are being highlighted. Once again, this is a very short piece of extra which I assume is part of a much larger program dedicated to Cuban cinema.
Disc 4. Amada
Presented in an aspect ratio of 1.85:1 but not enhanced for widescreen TV's this is the weakest print in the entire collection. Colors are extremely weak and so is contrast suggesting an analog master is being used and indeed it shows how poor the actual print is. I am not sure where exactly the original print for this film is but it is a shame that the producers of the set (or the German sub-owners DEFA) were not capable of tracking a better copy. Amada is a beautiful film and sadly as far as I am concerned there are very few things here that are done properly. Very disappointing indeed! Finally, this also appears to be, like the rest of the discs in this collection, an improperly converted PAL-NTSC print.
The film is presented with a DD Spanish track which does reveal some inconsistencies: sounds is uneven and so is the actual volume balance. More than once the volume of the supporting soundtrack noticeably fluctuates and this causes a very strange effect in between dialog and music. The film comes with optional English subtitles.
Once again in addition to the photo gallery and text-format director's bio the only piece of extra is a short segment titled "A Day spent with Composer Leo Brouwer in Cuba" where the composer is shown contemplating film orchestration. As far as I am concerned this archival piece must have been part of the once state controlled film archive of the defunct GDR.
Disc 5. A Successful Man
First of all the aspect ratio for this film is rather off. What we have here is an image in approximately 1.52:1, not anamorphically-enhanced, and there is absolutely no doubt in me that this print of the film was sourced from an analog master. There are multiple scratches and debris in addition to dirt and burn marks. The color-scheme is very disappointing as practically there is a complete lack of consistency that a digitally-produced film print should offer. As I stated earlier in my review there is likely a good reason why this film appears in such poor condition but nevertheless I must state that I am very disappointed.
Presented with a Spanish DD track and optional white English subtitles the audio is rather challenging as well. Similarly to some of the earlier releases in this set is uneven and obviously unrestored. As far as I am concerned it isn't any batter than that found on average VHS releases just as is the video treatment.
In addition to the mandatory photo gallery and text-format director's bio what we have here is a great but rather short segment titled " The Story of the Cha Cha Cha told against the background of the Cuban dance halls from the 1950s". The title for this extra is qiote self-explanatory and as far as I am concerned the archival footage provided by DEFA-LightsStorm must once belonged to the GDR state TV archive. Some of the image are quite revealing of Cuba's past and its political elite.
Earlier in my review I stated that this massive set should be spared from the dismissive criticism it rightfully deserves. Yes, both the audio and video presentations are rather shaky and as far as I am concerned at times even unacceptable. But one MUST consider the fact that, and I am going to make a bold assumption here, proper film elements are very unlikely to be available in a near future. Unless of course the political climate in Cuba suddenly changes and amidst all the other issues the country will have to deal with film-restoration would take a priority. Seems like a very unlikely scenario to me!! With this in mind I am going to recommend this set simply because I think that Cuban Cinema deserves and needs to be seen! Especially by those who may remember many of the films in this collection but have been unable to acquire them for a number of different reasons!!