January 04, 2012

Muerte al invasor (1961)

In 1961, a CIA-trained group of Cuban exiles launched an attempt to overthrow the recently formed Cuban government of Fidel Castro. The operation, codenamed operation Zapata, was supported by the US government and involved landing the beaches of Bahía de Cochinos (Bay of Pigs), east of the Zapata peninsula in Cuba. The invasion was unsuccessful, as the Cuban armed forces defeated the invaders within three days. The failed invasion had as main consequence a much stronger nationalism and greater support for Castro's government in Cuba. This conflict later became known in Cuba as The Battle of Playa Girón (Battle of Girón beach), and in the US as the Bay of Pigs Invasion. Given the great importance that Cuban government gave to cinema, the Instituto Cubano del Arte y la Industria Cinematográphicos (ICAIC) sent a team of war correspondents to cover the event. Amongst them was Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, who constructed a short documentary film about the invasion for the ICAIC's newsreel of Santiago Álvarez: "Muerte al Invasor".

"Muerte al Invasor" (literally "Death to the Invader") is composed of the images captured by Gutiérrez Alea and his team of cameramen: Mario Ferrer, Pablo Martínez and Julio Simoneau. The narration, quite probably written by ICAIC director Alfredo Guevara and voiced by Julio Batista, details the events of the invasion, chronicling the three days of battle while at the same time glorifying the efforts of the Cuban people and its leaders. Given its nature as a documentary meant for a newsreel, its propagandistic goal is more than evident, with the defeated invaders constantly labeled as traitors and oppressors from previous government. The US support to the invaders is also a point discussed extensively in the film, noting the US' effort to overthrow the Cuban socialist government, and describing the covert nature of the operation as an example of imperialist treachery. In fact the film's subtitle describes the invasion as an imperialist aggression. "Muerte al Invasor" is certainly a film with an agenda, so subtlety is not one of its assets.

There has been much debate about who was actually behind the creation of "Muerte al Invasor", with supporters from both Tomás Gutiérrez Alea and Santiago Álvarez claiming sole credit for the film. The film does show early signs of both directors' styles: traces of Álvarez' innovative "nervous montage" can be felt through the film, while on the other side, the images that make up the documentary have the distinguished style of Gutiérrez Alea. And speaking of the images, the images captured on the film are not only of great historical interest, there is a certain raw beauty in some of them that truly portray the spirit of a nation defending itself. Forgetting the jingoistic narration and without taking a political side, those images speak a lot about a young nation that still believed in an ideal, and fought for it. The eloquence of the images in "Muerte al Invasor" give ground to the argument for Gutiérrez Alea as the sole director, but in the end, this newsreel piece may have as much contribution from him, as from Álvarez and even Guevara.

As written above, "Muerte al Invasor" was clearly conceived as a propaganda piece, with its latent glorification of the Cuban nation and its relentless demonization of the imperialist invaders. And this is perhaps the weakest side of the film, as despite the power of its images, the narrative is slow and even dull. Narrator Julio Batista's lack of emotion doesn't help to this, as he remains calm and monotone in his speech, akin to the narrator of a science documentary. As a propaganda piece, it does fulfill its purpose, but it somewhat lacks the vibrant energy of Soviet or posterior Cuban propagandistic cinema. The film's true strength, is clearly in its images and montage, which showcases the talents of its makers and offers a glimpse to their posterior careers. The contrast in quality between the images on film and the written narration is so big that the film could easily work better without the narration. The eye of the young Cuban cinema was enough to tell the story of their victory, no need for added glorification.

"Muerte al Invasor" may not be the best example of the cinema of Tomás Gutiérrez Alea and Santiago Álvarez, though it's certainly a quite interesting film to watch to notice the development that took place for both two filmmakers, later celebrated stars of the Golden Age of Cuban cinema. In a film like "Muerte al Invasor", which clearly has its defined goal and political agenda, it's always difficult to separate the politics from the film, but in this case, whether one agrees or not with its arguments, one thing is clear: with their images and montage, filmmakers Tomás Gutiérrez Alea and Santiago Álvarez have truly captured the face and spirit of a young nation finding itself.


No comments: