The Caribbean has always been known for its music, food, political conflicts (Cuba’s blockade and Puerto Rico still being the only colony in the world) and its beaches, but it has never been known for its movie industry.
In recent years there has been a huge growth in local productions, thus attracting big studios to come to the area to film their movies. Films like “The Rum Diaries”, “Pirates of the Caribbean”, “Cool Running’s” and documentaries like “Sicko”, have all been made in and around the area.
Rich in landscapes, tropical beaches, and beautiful women, for some the potential of filmmaking in the Caribbean is relatively unknown; so as a native local I decided to compile a list of some movies from the area you should watch, from animated feature, to comedies, to drama.
Hopefully the cinema of the Caribbean can get to an international standing in the coming years. But for now, here’s a preliminary list of what I consider to be an excellent introduction to the film styles of the Caribbean.
1. Soy Cuba (I Am Cuba) (1964) Mikhail Kalatozov
A Cuban-Soviet co-production, the film I am Cuba was made as a Pro-Castro propaganda by soviet director Mikhail Kalatozov. As the United States government broke relations with Cuba’s government and the Cuban Missile Crisis went to full effect, Cuba’s film industry was in serious need of funding, so they turned to their ally Russia for production money. The Russian government agreed to fund the movie as long as it helped their international socialist campaign.
The movie recounts four stories dealing with student rebellion, poverty, police brutality and country life before and during Castro’s early years as Cuba’s president.
I Am Cuba was shot with impeccable style in beautiful black and white cinematography by the great Russian cameraman Sergey Urusevsky (“Letter Never Sent” and the exquisite “The Cranes Are Flying”) whose long takes and steadicam work is what makes this film so rich and exciting in the first place.
Forgotten until recently, I Am Cuba found a new audience in the 90’s with the help of mega directors like Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese who started campaigning for the film to be restored and showed in movie theaters.
2. La muerte de un burocrata (Death of a Bureaucrat) (1966) Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s
What “I Am Cuba” did for socialist propaganda; Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s Death of a Bureaucrat did the opposite. The film revolves around a man who mass-produced little statues of nationalist Cuban hero Jose Martin. When the man dies, his widow tries to collect his pension money, after that she learns that the man was buried with his union card, which she needs to collect her husband’s pension.
A slap-stick comedy of sorts, Death of a Bureaucrat was sliced and diced in the editing room by the censors and was never seen in its entirety in its own country. Fortunately outside of Cuba the film was played in its original running time of 87 minutes.
3. Vampiros en la Habana (1985) Juan Padrón
The first and only animated film on the list, Vampiros en la Habana follows the story of Count Dracula’s son (Werner Amadeus) and the formula he created to protect vampires from the UV rays of the sun (Vampisol). After years of testing the formula with vampire dogs, the experiment became a success, thus attracting two gangs from different parts of the globe (the U.S.A. had “Capa Nostra” and in Europe it was “Grupo Vampiro”) to seek the formula.
Werner’s father Dracula wanted to try the formula and it didn’t work for him and he died. Ashamed and ridiculed by everyone, Werner set sail for Cuba to find big quantities of the ingredients he needed to perfect the formula, which was rum and piña colada. In Cuba, Werner created a variant formula which he then gave to his nephew who grew as a normal boy not knowing he was a vampire.
Reminiscent of classic animated movies like “Fritz the Cat”, “Vampiros en la Habana” is a spoof of classic American horror films and gangster films from the 30’s and 40’s. Brimming with a bunch of political sub-text, the film is un-polished and raw in its style and story. Worth checking out even if you don’t understand Spanish.
4. Lo que le Pasó a Santiago (Whatever Happened to Santiago) (1989) Jacobo Moreles
Tommy Muñiz is Santiago, a recently retired man whose routine based and boring life gets disrupted by the sudden appearance of a woman named Angelina (Gladys Rodriguez ), giving him (Santiago) a new lease on life. After a few encounters, Santiago starts to get fond of Angelina, but also becomes suspicious of her because she won’t give him any personal information. Obsessed with this woman, Santiago hires a private detective to follow Angelina.
One of Puerto Rico’s greatest films made by one of the country’s best film directors, Jacobo Moreles (His credits include working with Woody Allen in his film Bananas). Lo que le paso a Santiago was filmed for only half a million dollars in and around the city of Old San Juan in Puerto Rico. It also has some surreal and neo-realism elements, reminiscent of classic Italian cinema. The movie was also nominated for an Academy Award in the category of “Best Foreign Language Film”, losing to the excellent Cinema Paradiso.
5. Celestino y el Vampiro (Celestino and the Vampire) (2003)
A personal favorite of mine and arguably the most underrated film in Puerto Rico. Celestino y el Vampiro is a low budget risqué comedy about a recently divorced loser trying to cope with life living alone and being newly single. After getting to know our main protagonist (Celestino), we then meet his new neighbor, a well-mannered Vampire whose only means of survival is to suck blood from local ladies with huge buttocks.
The comedy in the film is funny and silly as a “Monty Python” sketch but due to its low budget nature, Celestino y el Vampiro is a really hard to find movie. This movie has found a cult following among locals on the island.