Review: Cuba

[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

Robert Dapes (Sean Connery) is a British mercenary who arrives in Cuba to help train soldiers for Batista’s collapsing regime. When he checks in with the British embassy on his arrival, he is informed by an official (who gingerly supports Batista—until the prevailing winds blow from another direction) that if he gets into trouble he shouldn’t come to them: “You won’t be welcome, chum.” This is an attitude that the central character of Richard Lester’s Cuba runs into repeatedly: he is welcome almost nowhere. When he happens upon his former love Alexandra (Brooke Adams) playing tennis with her husband Juan (Chris Sarandon), she pretends not to recognize Dapes and tells Juan it was “Nobody.” Later, when she does confront Dapes, she can’t even remember his last name (though her husband remembers his face when introduced: “Juan, this is—” “Nobody?”). After they’ve rekindled the relationship and Dapes assumes she cherishes it as much as he does, Alex insists that it’s nothing and finally kisses him off by capsulizing the former affair: “I regard those as lost years. There was nothing—and I include you, Robert—nothing that made them memorable.” Shades of 10.

Dapes is a man with a code, and he arrives in the corrupt arena to discover that by everyone else’s standards, romantic or behavioral, his code is without meaning. In the days of Casablanca, by which this film has been fairly obviously inspired, such a code might have been equally unpopular but at least it would have had meaning. At least lovers could “always have Paris”; here, in a society existing on a borderline (the ostensible chaos is shrugged off by Juan, who insists, “Nothing ever changes in Cuba”), the affair (which took place in North Africa—near the coast of Morocco, perhaps?) is not even memorable. Cuba is a deeply pessimistic film. But Lester’s cynicism—and almost certainly his unhappiness with a very bad script) leads him to some unsubtle, rather gauche imagery: Alex’s question “Am I still beautiful?” is heard while we look at a shot of poverty-stricken children as Robert and Alex stroll through a muddy slum; later on, a shot of the two of them embracing dissolves to a pile of garbage. This undercutting can be lovely, too, as when a sunrise walk on the beach, with terrible, falsely romantic music swelling, takes place in front of a series of advertising billboards. Selling and selling out are primary concerns in Cuba (and Cuba), and almost everyone is on the take; Dapes’s retaining his integrity is the exception.

People in this environment are ripe for persuasion. Occasionally a shot will include a television tuned to nothing but a test pattern, as if waiting to be manipulated. The willingness to believe in the reality of media is emphasized when a character sitting next to a TV hears gunfire and habitually glances at the set before realizing the shots are genuine and come from the street outside. At the end of the film, a montage of rallying Castroites becomes black-and-white, like the footage of Castro himself: have the people been swept up by history or the medium? The lie of change becomes real while Cuba visually remains the same. The hero understands “nothing” except “sitting here bloody well disgusted.” It would be interesting to know with whom Lester himself identifies more—the strong-willed Dapes, a paid man even as he continues to cling to his own moral guidelines, or the weakling Juan, who watches passively as the bottles crash to the floor of his family’s rum factory when the workers strike. Perhaps he retains that touch of idealism with his realistic cynicism, and that is what lends Cuba its peculiar attractiveness: like the civil-war-torn country it describes, it is a film at war with itself.

© 1980 Robert Horton

CUBA
Direction: Richard Lester. Screenplay: Charles Wood. Cinematography: David Watkin; second-unit: Robert Stevens. Production design: Gil Parrando. Costumes: Shirley Russell. Editing: John Victor Smith. Music: Patrick Williams. Production: Arlene Sellers, Alex Winitsky; executive: Denis O’Dell.
The players: Sean Connery, Brooke Adams, Chris Sarandon, Jack Weston, Hector Elizondo, Denholm Elliott, Danny de la Paz, Lonette McKee, Walter Gotell, Martin Balsam, Alejandro Rey, David Rappaport, Louisa Moritz, Dave King.

A pdf of the original issue can be found here.