Dreaming of Cuba? 7 Films to Watch Before You Go

Americans have been hearing a lot about Cuba in the year since the Obama administration normalized relations  – and thousands of Americans have been heading to the beautiful Caribbean island to see it for themselves. If you’re thinking – or dreaming – of going there yourself, start by checking out the films below. Fairly easy to find on streaming services or DVD, these will give you a taste of the past fifty years of Cuban film and culture.

1.    Soy Cuba (I am Cuba)

A 1964 Soviet propaganda film about Cuba that managed to get banned in both the USSR and Cuba. Five discrete stories include some of the most beautiful scenes ever shot (some on infrared film from the Soviet military), as part of otherwise superficial stories about Cuba from just before, during, and after the revolution. Directed by Mikhail Kalatozov.

2.    Memorias del Subdesarrollo (Memories of Underdevelopment)

An outstanding 1968 film based on a novel of the same name, this is one of the best Cuban movies ever made and regularly appears on top 100 lists of world cinema. The protagonist Sergio, not an especially likeable character, stays in Havana after most of his friends and family – including his wife – have left, but seems to have no interest in becoming part of post-revolutionary society. Instead, he coolly observes the world from a self-imposed distance, except for fleeting encounters with beautiful women. Based on a novel by Edmundo Desnoes and directed by famed Cuban director Tomás Gutiérrez Alea.  

3.    Fresa y chocolate (Strawberry and Chocolate)

Daring for its time (1994), this is the story of a budding friendship between a homosexual dissident and a member of the Young Communists. What starts out as the attempted seduction of a naïve young man by a cynical older one becomes a complex story of friendship and intellectual development amidst political and social constraints. The first Cuban fiction film to receive international acclaim since the 1960s, and the debut of Cuba’s favorite movie star, Jorge Perugorria. Directed by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea and Juan Carlos Tabío.

4.    Buena Vista Social Club 

Legendary German director Wim Wenders followed American musician Ry Cooder to Havana as he searched for some once-renowned, but then nearly-forgotten Cuban musicians. We follow the elderly musicians as they are re-assembled and eventually taken on tour to revive their former glory. Beautiful to watch and full of wonderful music.

5.    Chico and Rita

An animated film (for adults) about a fictional couple who find and then lose each other in the Cuban jazz scene. Set in Havana and New York, the film recreates pre-revolutionary Havana with the help of a photo-archive assembled by the Havana city government to help with street repairs. By Spanish director Fernando Trueba, 2010.

6.    Juan de los Muertos (Juan of the Dead)

Released in 2011, this is Cuba’s first zombie movie. Ne'er-do-well Juan is forced to pull himself together when zombies overrun Havana, and he has the happy idea to set up a zombie-killing business to help cope with the situation.Hilarity ensues.Directed by Alejandro Brugués.

7.    Unfinished Spaces

An American documentary from 2011 about the Cuban National Schools of Art (ISA). Founded and built in the first flush of post-revolutionary enthusiasm, the schools were defunded and subjected to ideological controls a few years later. Following the fortunes of Cuba as a whole, the unique buildings fell into disrepair as Cuba’s economy suffered in the 1990s, only to be restored in the 2000s. Students continued to study there throughout the decades of ups and downs. A fascinating look at an institution that also gives a good sense of Cuban society in the 50 years after the revolution. Directed by Benjamin Murray and Alysa Nahmias.