La muerte de un burócrata essay by María Elena de las Carreras, Ph.D.
The cinema of Tomás Gutiérrez Alea cannot be properly understood without grasping a historical event - the Cuban Revolution of 1959 – with its ideological roots and political objectives. The success of the Revolution, fought in the rugged Sierra Maestra of southeast Cuba for several years, brought to power a small and audacious group of guerrilla fighters, led by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, after toppling the military dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, and enjoying popular support.
Like the Russian Revolution of 1917 fifty years earlier, this call to replace the social, political and economic order of the former Spanish colony and a de facto American protectorate, appealed to many in Cuba, especially young intellectuals and artists. Successfully exported to Latin America, and elsewhere, as a leftist ideological paradigm and a praxis to take over power, the fascination the Cuban Revolution still exerts could be felt in November of last year when most reactions to the death of 90-year Fidel Castro, in power for forty years, unelected, glossed over the brutal price exacted by the communist leader and his regime on the Caribbean nation.
This is the context in which Tomás Gutiérrez Alea (1928-1996), the most significant of Cuban directors, has to be placed to examine his film career. Known as “Titón”, and born to a family of means and progressive ideas, Gutiérrez Alea studied law in Cuba and then filmmaking at the renowned Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia in Rome, in the early 1950s. He observed first hand the punch Neorealism – then at its heyday – packed when portraying the social and political struggles of post-WWII Italy. Back in Cuba he directed a documentary about coal workers, (1955), with Julio García Espinosa.
Fervent supporters of the Revolution, they joined forces with others from the cine-club circles of La Habana to found the Instituto de Artes y Ciencias Cinematográficos, or ICAIC. It was set up as a state-sponsored institution designed to manage the Cuban film industry, under the ideological and financial aegis of the new regime that soon declared itself a one-party socialist state under communist rule and the patronage of the Soviet Union. “Within the Revolution, everything; against the Revolution, nothing”, proclaimed Castro in June 1961, considering cinema a weapon of choice to educate and proselytize.
Gutiérrez Alea never wavered in his support of the Revolution, but good director that he was, his pictures never toe an overt propaganda line. They are aligned with the tenets of the regime but at the level of form, they are an artist’s creative take on the medium. La muerte de un burócrata is a case in point, both in content and style. Fifty years after it was made, La muerte is still a refreshing, almost post-modern, satire on the plague of bureaucracy … under any type of government and organization.
In La muerte de un burócrata, Alea develops a skill we’ll see at play in his later work, especially in his best films, Memorias del subdesarrollo (1968), La Última Cena (1976), Fresa y chocolate (1993) and Guantanamera (1995): a sharp eye “for identifying and then dramatizing the historical and cultural legacies that stand in the way of turning Cuba into a truly socialist society” as Paul Schroeder wrote in his doctoral thesis for Stanford University in 2000.
La muerte de un burócrata uses the conventions of the satire to blast the bureaucratic mindset that reduces life to a succession of absurdities, with witty homages to films and directors, in the guise of scenes filmed a variety of comedic styles: the assembly line of Chaplin’s Modern Times, the clock from which Harold Lloyd hangs in Safety Last, Dracula’s fangs, the pie fights of Laurel and Hardy, a scattered and curvaceous Cuban Marilyn Monroe, and surrealist dreams like those of Buñuel. The potpourri works very well, and gets hearty laughs from the audience.
The film is centered on the predicament of a hapless nephew (Salvador Wood) to retrieve the ID of his recently deceased uncle, a model worker and inventor. His widow (Silvia Planas) placed it in the coffin, but now needs it, admonished by a bureaucrat that she will not get a pension without this piece of identification. But the bureaucrat in the cemetery tells him no exhumation is possible without a court order. A clandestine operation yields the coffin, but the nephew has to wheel it back to their home when the police unexpectedly show up. (Imagine the depredations of the Caribbean heat on an unrefrigerated cadaver). The farce escalates, the lampooning of recognizable government employees gets more ridiculous, and some sacred cows are turned upside down – like socialist realist art, and the fact that everybody is equal but some are more equal than others.
The film opens with a typewriter typing out the first page of an “expediente”, or administrative file, listing the credits of the film, while Chopin’s funeral march is heard in the background. After finishing typing the film acknowledgments, the document is stamped with a “Nihil Obstat”, alluding to the Church official’s seal of approval – not objectionable on doctrinal grounds.
Shot on location in central Havana, in black-and-white, the film quite unexpectedly becomes a portrait of what the bustling city looked like in the sixties (those American cars!) before the benign neglect of the ensuing decades. The viewer gets to see what Cuban life was like then, under the lens of a black comedy that gets progressively blacker. In the mayhem and slapstick of the final scene – punctuated by expressionistic sound effects – the nephew has a nervous breakdown and kills the bureaucrat of the title, who couldn't approve a re-burial without a proper certificate of exhumation. A Chinese national looks at the camera and says something unintelligible to the Spanish speakers, in the melée on screen or the spectators viewing the film. La muerte de un burócrata ends where it began, in the cemetery, with a view from up high that becomes an eloquent comment on the folly of men adhering to rules which defy common sense.