A spectre haunts the neophyte contemplating the cinema of Communist countries: the spectre of socialist realism. Ever since Stalin cracked down on the Soviet avant-garde, we've come to expect a certain dogmatic artlessness from lands where Leninism rules: storytelling simple enough for peasants to understand along with mandatory optimism and adulation about leaders. I expected as much from the early years of Castro's Cuba, but should have known better. Totalitarianism is rarely as total as some folks fear. Even the Nazis cranked out the occasional cool film like Munchhausen, so the Cubans were owed a chance to prove themselves. Also, my first sample of Cuban cinema was billed as a comedy, so how totalitarian could it be?
Julio Garcia Espinosa's mock-epic opens with Western style shots of revolutionaries on horseback over a soundtrack by Leo Brouwer that can hold its own with the most energetic pop-cinema scores of the 60s. This leads into the pursuit of the rebel leader Juan Quin Quin on a sugar cane plantation. The landlord orders the cane fields burnt to kill or flush the man out, but Juan survives by digging in. We abruptly cut to what proves to be an earlier episode in Juan's career. He seems to be an altar boy to an obnoxious priest. He goes to the cockfights, where his pal has a rooster entered, hoping to raise money for a sick kid with the proceeds. Juan is asked to intervene when his pal accuses his opponent of using poison to win the fight. He expresses his judgment by slapping the offender in the face with the dead rooster, sparking a brawl in the crowd, through which Juan escapes.
We next see a buxom black woman bound onto a beach, joined shortly by an equally buxom blonde companion. They are circus folk, and Juan and his pal Jachero have a scheme to make money staging bullfights. This leads to them acquiring the circus's lion and hauling its cage up a steep hill. At the top, Jachero leans on the cage to rest, sending it speeding down into an easily panicked town -- good publicity for "the first corrida ever in Cuba." Having acquired a bull, Juan sets about fighting it. The bull wins and escapes through the stands into the village, but Juan isn't really worse for wear until the authorities show up to collect a fine for an illegally staged event. It may be the law, but Juan objects that "Laws are meant to protect poor people." Speaking of the poor, once they get their bull back the next stop is a village so poor that no one can afford admission and the bull is slaughtered and picked clean while Juan isn't looking.
Now back to the revolution. Things are looking bad for the bearded Juan as the army surrounds his plucky band. He needs Jachero to get through the last pocket to alert an ally before the noose is closed. Jachero is obliged to ride the side of a cow through enemy lines, then make a mad dash across a railway bridge to catch a train. Finding suspicious characters on board, he dashes off the other way at heightened speed. The army is on the lookout. A soldier prods a wagonload of hay, hoping that Jachero is inside. His commander uses a machine gun. It turns out that Jachero was inside, but he was only shot in the leg. He accomplishes his mission, then resolves to make his rendezvous with Juan under his own lame power.
Here's where the film becomes eccentric. As Jachero limps through the landscape, he thinks "What a beautiful countryside...from a distance." How do I know what he was thinking? Because a cartoon thought balloon appears to tell me, that's how. He has further recourse to this mode of communication when a friendly farm woman aids him and feeds him some sardine pie. Despite her efforts, Jachero is captured in the morning and about to be hanged when the revolutionaries ride to the rescue. At this point a title card appears: "ENOUGH OF THIS TOMFOOLERY! At this point some scenes of Latin American family life could be inserted." They could, but aren't, and we're back to the battle. Juan rescues Jachero in the nick of time, and the next card comments, "It would also be possible to put this or that pointless UN meeting here." Yes, but no.
Instead, Juan's reunion with the woman Teresa leads us to an official flashback to Juan's days as a circus Jesus, uttering the last sacred words before reminding the audience to come back tomorrow for another show. "Jesus" signs a photo for a young fan, then tips his crown of thorns in respect when Teresa's father chides him for flirting with her. He has other roles in the circus, which is the same one with the two ladies we met earlier in the picture. Most dramatically, he is "the Man of a Thousand Lives." A Cuban David Blaine, he is buried alive and must remain underground for half an hour while the ladies dance and Jachero appears as "the Cuban Fakir" who dares audience members to jump on his chest while he lays, with visible discomfort, on a bed of broken glass. One man loses his nerve, but when a big Army guy wants to try, Jachero loses his nerve and runs away as Teresa storms the ring to dig Juan out of his tomb.
Here's an extended clip of the circus scene and its aftermath. The synchronization and aspect ratio are better on the DVD, but you can see the whole movie in ten installments on You Tube.
We next see Juan and Jachero as aspiring sharecroppers. They agree to clear some land for an eccentric landowner to start a coffee plantation. The landowner is a serene type; dressed in a kimono, he meditates daily by contemplating the fish in his aquarium. He also rips off our heroes after they labor at great speed to clear the land. This seems to be when our heroes are radicalized once and for all. They study the art of guerrilla warfare, as a narrator elaborates the essentials of infiltration and surprise, with Jachero often illustrating by negative examples. There's a long, almost inexplicably funny sequence, in which he annoys an officer who's fond of singing while he's drunk, that serves as prelude to the climactic attack, rendered in large part as slapstick comedy. There are bits of cartoonish action. Half a dozen army guys dogpile on top of Juan. He crawls out from under them with their weapons, which he hands to Teresa. He then crawls back into the dogpile, in order to get more weapons. It's hardly a spoiler for a comedy to tell you that victory is assured....
From this source I learn that Julio Garcia Espinosa espoused something that he called "imperfect cinema." Basically it's the Brechtian thing: a rejection of the seamless storytelling and easy audience identification with characters allegedly typical of Hollywood in the hope that, rather than wallow in an illusory realism, audiences will see that they're supposed to learn something. What the Cuban audience is meant to learn, however, is unclear. The academic critics see Juan Quin Quin as a send-up of Hollywood genres, but acknowledge that Espinosa doesn't really transcend the generic conventions he was supposedly satirizing. He seems to be having too much fun. The film itself is simply too irreverent in every aspect to have any didactic effect. It trounced my expectation of a Cuban cinema trapped in dogmatic isolation from the rest of the world. Itself part of a Hispanic picaresque tradition that goes back to Don Quixote if not earlier, Juan Quin Quin seems fully engaged with global pop culture, from spaghetti westerns to the silents-influenced slapstick of AIP comedies. Leo Brouwer's score adds to that impression. On this small evidence, he may have been in the same league as Les Baxter, John Barry and all their Italian peers. There's also some 60s-style stunt casting, with Enrique Santiesteban playing all the villainous roles in the story, though with less diversity of visage than Peter Sellers might offer. As our heroes, Julio Martinez and Erdwin Fernandez are consistently entertaining; they would've made a good team on a more regular basis. But as it happens, Fernandez only made one more film (according to IMDB) while Martinez ended up as a stuntman and worked in that capacity on James Cameron's Titanic.
I shouldn't jump to conclusions before watching more Cuban films (and this is one in a five-film Cuban Masterworks set available at the Albany Public Library), but I want to say that it's doubly to Cuba's credit that Juan Quin Quin was reportedly the country's most popular film of the 1960s. It's first to the credit of Cubans for patronizing the film, and it's also to the credit of the Cuban government for giving them the chance. Revolutionaries with thinner skins might not have seen all the humor on hand here, but the Castro brothers seem like good sports on this occasion for indulging a film that makes revolution itself, along with much else, look a little silly. I recommend it as an almost lost puzzle piece that makes our picture of global pop cinema of the 1960s more complete.