Tomas Gutierrez Alea's "Up to a Certain Point" (opening Friday at the Fox International in Venice) takes its title from a Havana dockworker's remark explaining the degree to which he's willing to accept equality between the sexes. He estimates that he can go 87% of the distance, but that's it.
This man is one of many men and women being taped by a screenwriter-playwright (Oscar Alvarez) as research for a film he's writing, intended to be both a love story and an attack on machismo --which is exactly what this deft, elegant and painful self-examination turns out to be.
"Up to a Certain Point," which highlights the Fox's second and final week of New Cuban Cinema, stands as a companion piece to Alea's introspective 1968 masterpiece, "Memories of Underdevelopment" (screening with "Certain Point" through Sunday). Both star handsome, sophisticated, middle-aged and middle-class men breaking out of their sheltered, privileged existences. If the new film, which runs only 72 minutes, doesn't have the breadth and depth of the "Memories," it may be because it's been cut. It's been reported that Cuban officials and Fidel Castro himself were not pleased with it. Even so, it's a film of considerable impact with fine performances and a fluid, easy style.
Alvarez has chosen the docks as the setting for the film he's writing because he assumes that machismo flourishes there more strongly than in other strata of Cuban society. " Machismo is the same everywhere," counters a beautiful clerical worker at the docks (Mirta Ibarra), but it takes the rest of the film for Alvarez to discover the truth of this remark--and that it applies to himself.
The more he learns of Ibarra's highly independent life style, the more he's forced to question his assumptions about the lives of workers in general. And the more time he spends with her, the more he's attracted to her. He's soon making the deathless remark of unfaithful husbands everywhere to their lovers: "Just give me some time." The finish of "Up to a Certain Point" (Times-rated Mature because of adult themes) involves a shocking incident from out of the blue and ends so abruptly that it reinforces the suspicion that Alea had more to say but finally wasn't allowed to say it.
Playing with "Up to a Certain Point" Monday and Tuesday is Alea's 1966 "The Death of a Bureaucrat," a sharp satire on the nightmare of bureaucratic red tape--capitalist as well as communist. With it Wednesday and next Thursday is "The Last Supper" (1976), which tells of an 18th-Century sugar-cane planter, a figure of stupefying obtuseness who in a burst of Holy Week piety invites 12 of his slaves to participate in a reenactment of the Last Supper. The event has catastrophic results that foreshadow Cuba's various revolutions.
Significantly, perhaps, "Up to a Certain Point," made in 1983, marks a return for Alea, arguably Cuba's finest director.