by B. Ruby Rich
Cut, no. 22, May 1980, pp. 29-30
DEATH OF A BUREAUCRAT is a fanciful satire that takes on the excesses of Kafkaesque bureaucracy at the same time that it pays loving homage to the excesses of early cinematic comedies. Tomás Gutierrez Alea is probably the best known and most appreciated Cuban director in this country, and yet the release of this film here this year marks the end of a thirteen-year wait. Made in 1966, the film was not released in the U.S. along with other features in 1973 (the first entry of Cuban films past our blockade) because it was reasonably feared that its honest self-criticism would be misinterpreted by the U.S. press as an insidious, dissident subversion. Enough Cuban films have been shown in the U.S. for such a fear to be long passed, so happily Gutierrez Alea's early comedy can be seen for what it is.
What is that? Well, DEATH OF A BUREAUCRAT is unlike any Cuban film we've seen before, and in fact rather unlike most anything since Jean Vigo was practicing his cinematic madness. The opening credits tell all. They appear in the form of a bureaucratic memo being typed by an invisible functionary, while ironically epic music swells from the sound track. The memo prose is full of "whereas" clauses, and rubber stamps intrude from time to time to impress an additional official notation onto the page/screen. But no amount of legalisms can obscure the names to which Gutierrez Alea dedicates his film: Luis Buñuel, Laurel and Hardy, Marilyn Monroe, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and even Jean Vigo. The films hero is a bewildered, hapless Everyman, a Keaton-Lloyd-Chaplin rolled into one, tilting at spinning windmills of red tape. There is a side plot involving his boss and the boss's night out with his secretary that recalls a moment of Monroe. There's a cemetery scene out of Laurel and Hardy and a nightmare out of the Buñuel/Dali UN CHIEN ANDALOU. In between, all along the way, there are sight gags inspired by a host of B movies, restaged à la Cubana.
The death that the film opens with is not that of a bureaucrat, but of a hero. Francisco J. Perez was an exemplary worker, a poor man's Michelangelo who suffered an untimely death when he fell into his own ingenious machine, one designed, in Rube Goldberg fashion, to grind out busts of José Martí, Cuba's revolutionary poet and founding father. Poor Paco, as he's endearingly remembered, fell victim to his own mode of production and emerged, himself, as a bust. Gutierrez Alea uses this death sequence (filmed as animation) and funeral eulogy to lampoon the worst stereotypes of state socialism. He pokes fun at real and at imaginary sore spots alike, on both literal and symbolic levels. Thus, Paco's eulogy is illustrated by photographs of his life -- with a helpful arrow to point him out in the crowd, the bobbing arrow becoming a joke on the role played by the individual in the arena of the masses. The Martí-machine becomes a joke upon the danger of turning the poetic into the mechanistic, a conflation that Cuban art has always avoided. It's probably also a reference to the multitude of machines (especially in 1966) patched together in just such a fashion, with parts unavailable due to the blockade and remedies left entirely to individual ingenuity. DEATH OF A BUREACRAT is filled with double- and triple-leveled jokes keyed to the Cuban realities of the time.
After Paco's death, it is his exemplary status that, significantly enough, sets the actual plot in motion. Due to his extraordinary contributions as a worker, and his death in the service of his duties, Pace's comrades decide to bury his work card with him. Alas, when the bereaved widow arrives at the proper office to collect her compensation, she discovers that her carte blanche now rests six feet under and that she's out of luck. A nephew, full of a naiveté he soon loses, offers to set the matter straight. The straight and narrow rapidly becomes a hopelessly twisted path, as every legitimate and illegitimate byway is explored that might restore order to a disordered universe. The same faceless functionaries, labyrinthine passageways, and ossified rules of procedure that moved Kafka to existential anguish here move us to laughter.
When the nephew requests that the tomb be opened, the cemetery director summarily dismisses him with the news that a two-year wait is required before exhumation. Hysterical, he appeals to some off-duty cemetery workers to help him. But their fear of spirits (a reference to the very real Cuban respect for the voodoo world) wrecks the exhumation midway, leaving the luckless nephew with the work card and Paco's corpse, which proves no easier to get back into the ground than it was to get out of it. The widow faints. Though neighbors pool their ice to keep the house decent, vultures begin circling, nonetheless. Again, a sardonic joke is made at the expense of "real" circumstances, in this case a shortage of goods that extends even to ice, with the vultures emphasizing the extremes of distress which such a situation might provoke. There is another funeral for Paco, and yet another. The nephew is deemed mad and wrapped in a strait jacket, again not once but twice. The problems get worse and worse, the solutions ever more drastic. In short, this is a runaway comedy that doesn't turn back at the outer boundaries of reason.
The cemetery director is a goon, replete with sunglasses and shining buckteeth. His underlings are straight out of Dickens or maybe grade B horror movies. A helpful hearse driver is the one moment of relief, seeking to aid the nephew's plight by imploring the director: "Comrade, you're not behaving like a dialectician." The poor nephew finally obtains the necessary papers but only after his after-hour exploits in the bureaucratic offices land him in a classic Harold Lloyd situation, hanging tenuously from a clock as the crowd down below (in a comic reverse on U.S. crowd manners) begs him not to jump. When he appears at the cemetery gates with a full funeral entourage, however, he is turned away because there is no record that the body was ever removed. It's too much. A fight breaks out between director and dialectician, eventually encompassing everyone in and around the cemetery environs in a mad explosion of anarchic violence modeled on Laurel and Hardy's TWO TARS fracas.
The nephew begins to have nightmares: he's pulling the coffin, some extra in a famous surrealist movie, while his deceased uncle impersonates WILD STRAWBERRIES on a merry-go-round. There is a series of wonderful scenes in the offices of officialdom, where tiny rockets blithely carry supplicants' fates through the air onto the uncaring desks of petty bureaucrats. Finally, the nephew becomes utterly unhinged by his tribulations and sinks his teeth into the only time-honored cinematic solution: a vampire blow to the neck.
Along the way, Gutierrez Alea gets in a number of digs at old movie conventions, particularly Hollywood vintage products. In fact, at irregular intervals, the story's enactment is embroidered with gratuitous bits of movie convention: fangs sprout on a waiter as the nighttime coffin heist is being planned; a mortician's card improbably reads "Tutankamen" embalming company; a psychiatrist exhibits a facial tic calling Jerry Lewis inexplicably to mind. When the hapless nephew finds himself an unwilling voyeur of his boss's sleazy night with his secretary (as he is literally trapped in a closet), the scene becomes an occasion to spoof as well the horribly frothy style of the 50s sex comedies. Trapped in that closet, the nephew seems to be shut up as well in the very same abhorrent cinematic past that Cuba had turned its back upon in 1959.
The art department in which the nephew is employed becomes the butt of many other Gutierrez Alec jokes, largely leveled at the aesthetic clichés of what might constitute an official socialist-realist art. Although Cuban art has been characterized by its innovation (particularly in graphic design) and, previous to the Revolution, by its sophisticated response to European styles, no such evidence surfaces in the film's parody of a taller (art workshop). In one department, for example, an artist is nailing a live octopus to a board under the rubric of U.S. imperialism, fastidiously labeling each tentacle with General Motors or some other appropriate title. In another, strong black models hold up mallets while an "artist" sketches them for the sort of "art" long ridiculed in Eastern European films. While in the case of the former there may have been some truth to the parody, here the humor is far more fantastical. A stroll through the Museum of Modern Art in Havana reveals no such stock in the galleries, where instead an eclectic array of influences sometimes betray particular Italian or French styles but nothing along the lines of this aesthetic nightmare.
Adding insult to injury, a skit presents a cheesecake version of our hero's escapades as scantily clad women carrying a miniature coffin enact the season's official bureaucratic slogan: "death to bureaucracy." Is it any wonder that the nephew finally takes their injunction literally, choosing the bureaucrat most deserving of the honor?
The film's humor ebbs and flows according to both its own rhythm and our knowledge of the particular circumstances or references being lampooned. In the last reel, the frantic pace becomes a bit overwhelming and the film loses steam. Perhaps the pace actually slows down, out of sympathy with the waning energies of the hero. Or perhaps Gutierrez Alea is using comedy to make some serious points, leading him to refuse the traditional course of comedic closure and to make the audience think past the last laugh. In fact, the film was made at a time when widespread debate was taking place on new directions of administrative organization for Cuba, in an effort to find a structure that would permit governance without an overloaded bureaucracy.
Today the film's period references are themselves a period piece, a fact which brings us around full circle. For Gutierrez Alea and his audience, DEATH OF A BUREAUCRAT was an exhumation and homage to a kind of cinema formerly loved and recently buried to usher in an authentic Cuban cinema. For us today it has become not merely a look back at that particular nostalgia but also an historical view of a certain juncture in Cuban social history.
This a slightly edited version of the review that appeared in The Chicago Reader (September 28, 1979). Copyright, The Chicago Reader 1979.