Depictions of Cuba in mainstream cinema have been rare – almost to the point of non-existent. Hollywood is all about make believe after all, and since the US-imposed trade embargo against Cuba prevented American films from being shot there, filmmakers needed to improvise. Some scenes purporting to take place in Cuba simply did not. The “Cuban” scenes in the James Bond film Die Another Day (2002) were filmed in Spain, with a few vintage cars in the background and some salsa music to set the mood. The 2011 film X-Men: First Class featured a climactic scene that supposedly took place at the Bay of Pigs. This scene was in fact achieved in a studio, with minimal location shooting at Jekyll Island in Georgia, USA.
Now that the US and Cuba are becoming friends again, Hollywood is once again welcome on the island (with all the money it can bring).
The first notable example of this new relationship is 2017’s Fast & Furious 8, which shot a number of car chase scenes in Havana. The delightfully rough streets of Havana are not at all suitable for driving so fast, but anyway… Hollywood is about make believe! Hollywood aside, the best cinematic interpretations of a culture generally come from within the culture itself. Cuba has a rich cinematic history, and there are numerous movies about Cuba that will help to put you in the mood for your holiday on the island.
We’ve prepared a list of the best of the best that you should see before you go.
A Slice of Life: Suite Habana (2003)
This excellent documentary offers an authentic slice of life of contemporary Havana. It’s simplistic in structure and yet is thoroughly engaging. It simply depicts an average day in the life of thirteen residents of the Cuban capital. The subjects are not particularly notable, and don’t have grand stories to tell – but this is not the point of Suite Habana, one of the most celebrated movies about Cuba in recent memory. The documentary uses a basic observational style, with minimal interaction between the subjects and the filmmaker. There is also practically no dialogue, meaning that it’s something you can watch and absorb, without needing to hear an explanation for everything.
Surreal and Brilliant: Memories of Overdevelopment (2010)
This film is fairly unique in movies about Cuba that it was screened in US cinemas (albeit on a very limited scale). Director Miguel Coyula has gone for a distinctive style that jumps between the present and past, often with imagined scenarios intercut into the action. There are even animated sequences, giving the film a surreal feeling. The film tells the basic story of an intellectual who decides that the ideals of the Cuban Revolution isn’t necessarily for them. While the film is not quite critical of the revolution (and the “development”) that followed, it still poses some interesting and thought-provoking questions about Cuba’s history.
A Celebration of Music: El Benny (2006)
Music is life in Cuba, and so it’s not all that surprising that an excellent biopic of a beloved musician is one of the best movies about Cuba. This is something that happens each and every year in English-speaking cinema, after all. It’s helpful that the story contains a large amount of tragedy too, since (spoiler alert!), the person whose life story the film is concerned with (Benny Moré) died of cirrhosis of the liver at the age of 43. A large amount of the film is fictionalised (as is often the case with biopics), but the end result is something vibrant and colourful, with an excellent soundtrack.
Maybe One of the Only Movies About Cuba You’ve Seen: Buena Vista Social Club (1999)
This gentle film electrified audiences in the late 90s, and it feels like every second person owned a copy of the soundtrack. While Cuban music has always enjoyed international acclaim, it could be argued that this documentary helped to introduce it to an entirely new audience. It’s essentially a concert film from the acclaimed German director Wim Wenders, with a number of establishing shots filmed in Havana itself (which was rare for an international co-production at that time). It’s a deeply compelling clash of cultures as the elderly performers head to Europe (many of whom have never been outside of Cuba before), simply to do the thing that has driven them throughout their lives – to perform in front of an audience. The music in this film is utterly enchanting, and you might want to track down a copy of the soundtrack yourself. But this is not the 90s, so you don’t need to buy the CD. You’ll find all the music from the film online.
A Landmark Parody: Death of a Bureaucrat (1966)
Cuban films that mocked the Cuban Revolution were understandably thin on the ground, which makes Death of a Bureaucrat (La muerte de un burócrata) a true rarity. It certainly doesn’t make fun of the revolution (which had, and continues to have popular support throughout Cuba), but instead gently parodies the silliness of many day-to-day situations that became commonplace after things changed in Cuba. It’s a very funny film that doesn’t take itself too seriously, with moments of humour that can become curiously dark.
Hello Oscar: Strawberry and Chocolate (1993)
The last item on our list is a film that came out of nowhere, and while it didn’t win, it was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1994. When watching Strawberry and Chocolate, you can see why this crowd pleasing comedy was embraced by both Cuban and international audiences. Like Death of a Bureaucrat, the film pokes gentle fun at certain aspects of Cuban life, with various elements of society represented by different characters facing off against each other.
It shows the skills of the filmmakers in that it can make a comment about various issues in Cuban life without being overly critical. It’s also hilarious.