I recently went to the Havana Film Festival to see Tomás Gutiérrez Alea's 1960 Historias de la revolución (Stories of the Revolution), the director's first feature, and the first feature film released in Cuba after the revolution. My expectations were quite low, but the film is astonishingly good, maybe great. It was clearly made under the influence of Rossellini's Paisa, and the resemblance is more than skin deep: Gutiérrez Alea (who seems to be a bit of a chameleon - none of his best-known films resemble each other much) shows a Rossellinian knack for working out strong dramatic premises through an observer's view of the particulars of the place and time in which he is filming. The extraordinary action sequences, especially the recreation of the battle of Santa Clara that provides the film's climax, manage to use long-shot topography to unify cause and effect while at the same time making virtuoso use of editing to depict warfare by attrition. Remembered primarily by Cubans as a memento of its moment in history, the film may well play better to today's film culture than it did to its contemporaries.
It's possible to see the film if it falls off the back of a truck near you, but such versions have no English subtitles at this time. Certainly one loses a great deal by not understanding what is said, but much of the film is dialogue-free, so it might be worth a go anyway. For those who wish to try, the following notes are not a synopsis, but rather a laundry list of places in the movie where understanding the dialogue is crucial.
Part One: "El herido (The Wounded Man)"
The dialogue here is not distinctive or closely linked to style. In the first part of the story, as the revolutionaries take refuge in the couple's apartment, it's important to know that the woman revolutionary, Elena, is friends with Miriam, the woman in the apartment, who says to her husband Alberto a few times "I can't tell them to go." Alberto, on the other hand, insists repeatedly that Miriam tell the revolutionaries to leave, and leaves the apartment himself because she won't eject them. At this point in the film he seems unsympathetic.
As Alberto arrives at the hotel, something phony about his story arouses the suspicion of the hotel clerk. Then, as the police interrogate him, it's important to know that he never gives anyone away, lying repeatedly, baldly, and ineffectively. The police find his home address in his papers, and insist on taking him there, though he tells them it's an old address. As the police drive up to the apartment, one of the revolutionaries says that Alberto has given them away; Miriam insists that he wouldn't have done so. The matter is not discussed further.
At the end, Alberto asks the milkman to help him get away. The milkman's first reaction is to say that it's too risky.
Part Two: "Rebeldes (Rebels)"
This is the segment that is most damaged by not understanding the dialogue, as the various conversations the revolutionaries have as they wait in the woods are not strongly plot-motivated: they often address themselves to the central dramatic point of the segment, but can't affect it much.
The group leader examines the wounded soldier and tells the others not to put him in the hammock that the leader had earlier instructed them to make: "It will only cause him needless suffering" to move him. Later, in conversation, one of the fighters says that the leader has had a lot of experience in such matters.
One important aspect of the dialogue is that the revolutionaries don't seem nearly as worried about the government troops as one would expect. (It's established that there are about 100 government soldiers against the six revolutionaries.) There is a streak of deadpan humor in their lack of concern: at one point a scout reports that the government soldiers are shooting at the trees, and no one reacts much. Apparently the government troops are known to be incompetent, though their eventual advance on the revolutionaries' position will still be fatal if the revolutionaries don't leave their position in time. Otherwise, there are few comments about the enemy, and politics is not much discussed.
Part Three: "Santa Clara"
Near the beginning of the segment, Julio, the revolutionary who has returned to Santa Clara, shows a woman a photo of the woman he loves, Teresa, asking about Teresa's whereabouts. Gutiérrez Alea cuts directly to Teresa, working behind the battle lines. During the victory parade after the battle, Julio sees a friend and asks again about Teresa's whereabouts. Other than this, the action doesn't depend on dialogue much, and the voiceover merely gives us information about the battle of Santa Clara, facts we have mostly seen enacted.