Fascinating, exquisitely shot, and not a little funny, “Cuba: A Lifetime of Passion,” directed by Glenn Gebhard, written by Juan Santamarina, and narrated by Michael York, updates the status of a tired and spent Cuban Revolution and the people who support, oppose, and deal with it as best they can. We witness the Revolution’s liabilities (poverty, low standard of life, rigged elections, restricted press) as well as its benefits (free medical care, state-sponsored sports and culture). We listen to rationalizations: It’s the embargo. No, it’s the government. We understand how what was once, for some, a glorious, well-intentioned revolution devolved into a static, post-ideology gerontocracy. The film has the sense of a feud that spans generations, still in place but no one remembers (especially as time passes) how and why it started.
The Heroes of this film are the Cuban people. Animated and opinionated, they are, depending on whom you ask, long-suffering, still basking in revolutionary glory, or simply getting by. The first two groups hold romantic views; one of Old Cuba, one of New Cuba. But neither is real, just as Merrie Olde England never really existed. The exiles in Miami seem intent on, if not revenge, then at least a reversion to a post-Castro Ricky Ricardo Cuba. Others, the ones living off state largesse for boxing, for ballet, for medical care, don’t complain, even though the Cold War is long gone. And then, delightfully, there are those who make due with things the way they are. Especially these two: one character takes us on a tour of proudly-restored, decades-old, American cars; and an old artist gives us a tour of the Watts Tower-esque sculpture garden he crafted from scrap metal.
The film’s structure enhances its content. It’s set up as a game of ping-pong, those for the revolution, those against it, and those watching it. Though the film balances interviews with partisans of Old and New Cuba, its tone feels tongue in cheek. The film begins with a TV set placed, incongruously and unexpectedly, in the street. It shows Fidel Castro, in his prime, delivering a fiery oration. (Note the difference between the contemporary TVs and the grainy black and white newscasts.) Different TV sets appear throughout the documentary; each plays snatches of the same manner of inflammatory video. Sometimes people are asked about life under Castro. The responses, understandably guarded, are neither wholeheartedly pro nor con, each delivered while what was once relevant video drones on like background noise.
In the cold light of a post-ideological world, Cuba, as portrayed in this film, reads like a circus that, having pulled up its stakes, nonetheless remains in the center of town, a moribund curiosity. The moral of the story? There is no such thing as Good Old Days. Nostalgia may make Batista’s Cuba or Castro’s Cuba seem better than they really were. But you can’t replicate something that never existed. And why would new generations of Cubans want to? The world has changed much since the 1959 Revolution. Eventually, Cuba will, too.