Cuba’s most influential director

Cuba’s most influential director whose landmark 1994 film, Strawberry and Chocolate (Fresa y Chocolate), was the country’s first movie to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film, and brought world acclaim and vitality to its cinema.

Born into an affluent family in Havana, Alea’s directorial career paralleled the rise of communism and development of the country’s film industry. Alea’s extraordinary achievement was balancing his political commitment to the revolution and criticism of the betrayal of its ideals.

Following Fidel’s 1958 revolution, lawyer and film graduate Alea was recruited to make newsreels and documentaries for the Cultural Directorate of the Rebel Army, and as one of the founding members of the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry (CICAI).

In 1960 he directed Cuba’s first official feature, Stories of the Revolution. But  his approach to political film-making wasn’t blinkered: he believed propaganda films should be counter-balanced by exposure or satire of the regime’s flaws evident in his breakthrough  international success, Death of a Bureaucrat (La Muerte de un Burocrata, 1966), a spoof of the excessive socialist bureaucracy.

Another acclaimed feature, Memories of Underdevelopment (Memorias de Subdesarollo, 1968), hailed by critics as 'a radical, innovatively styled masterpiece," focused on political ambivalence in a profile of a middle class intellectual trapped between his sympathy for the revolution and his inability to fully commit himself to it.

But his most daring and controversial film, which broke all Cuban box office records, was Strawberries and Chocolate (1994), tackling head on a Cuban and Catholic taboo: homosexuality. Chronicling the friendship between a middle aged gay man and a young fervent Cuban Marxist, its central message is tolerance.

Made whilst Alea’s health was severely compromised by lung cancer, Strawberry and Chocolate and his final work, Guantanamera, were co-directed by close collaborator, Juan Carlos Tabio.

As a bold provocateur, Alea left a lasting legacy.

– Mary Colbert