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Lorenzo DeStefano

Even on the move like this I feel the heat that is Havana in early June. Fresh from a cold shower at the once grand Hotel Presidenté, I travel by taxi along the vast and crumbling Malecon, arrive at the northern edge of the Miramar district just before one. The address I’m looking for, Numero 110, Callé Cero, is actually a vacant lot behind the shuttered mass of the empty Sierra Maestra Hotel. Planted haphazardly with maize and dehydrated squash, it’s not what I expected after speaking with Tomás Gutiérrez Alea two days ago from Santiago. Once again I show the driver the address I wrote down at the time.He repeats his initial take on the situation. "Si, unocientodiez es aqui."

The scarred white box I’ve hauled from California to Miami to Havana to Santiago and back to Havana digs deep into my shoulder as I step from the cab. I’m thinking this could be the end of my hopes for meeting the most internationally celebrated of Cuba’s film directors.

I try recalling the tone of Alea’s voice on the phone when he gave me this address. No residue of mocking there that I can remember, no elusive mischief come in handy to dissuade young filmmakers bearing compliments from abroad. I can only recall his friendly tone and the appointment we had made for one.
"I live in a two story house, by the way, with our part upstairs."
A sick feeling starts taking over as I scan this neighborhood of nothing but two-story houses. The prospect of molesting hot and hungry Habanians for directions is not a thrilling option at this point. The driver grows impatient looking for something that clearly doesn’t exist. I pay him the three-dollar fare and watch his Fiat haul ass towards Avenida Cinco.

Stand in the middle of the nearly deserted Callé Cero and you will see a densely populated street bearing the telltale imprint of decline with measurable pride. Ending at the shoreline of the Caleta de San Lazaro, Callé Cero, like many streets in Cuba, hangs onto the faded middle-class tranquility of decades gone by. I look around for an open face to bail me out here. A tall man walks a wiry black dog, shakes his head at my rudimentary query, "Donde esta la casa su Senor Tomás Gutiérrez Alea?" Another man on a balcony ignores me altogether. All at once a man emerges from behind a section of rusted fence. He’s carrying an armload of huge dead banana leaves, nods vigorously when I ask him for Senor Alea’s house. He points me directly across the street from where I’ve been standing all this time. "Es aqui!"

The house is black and white, with the most manicured shrubbery on the block. The number 105 is prominent on the front wall. Moving through a wrought-iron gate, I head up the glossy painted stairs, come face to face with a startled housekeeper mopping the foyer. "Permiso, señora. Me llamo Lorenzo DeStefano. Yo tengo an, appointamento con Senor Alea. Es aqui?" She smiles at the tongue-tied visitor. "Señor Alea no aqui. Entrar, por favor." The housekeeper walks ahead of me, motions to a chair. I set the heavy box down, am led towards a veranda shaded by plumeria and rubber trees. When she vanishes into the kitchen I try for as clear a view as possible of the front door.

The living room is home to some very fine abstract paintings and a modernist floor sculpture made of mother of pearl. Family photographs hang on the walls behind smoky convex glass. A caustic breeze lacerates the dwelling from front to back, strangely uncooled by its proximity to the Gulf of Mexico. It brings with it the scent of kitchen cleanser and some roses from a planter down below.

I hear Tomás Gutiérrez Alea greet his housekeeper before I see him. His black Reeboks float in their own shadows on the immaculate tile floor, make him look frail in the intense fragmented sunlight. From the patio he looks somewhat older than I expected.

A dignified and very handsome man in his sixties, his hair is gray and close-cropped, his khaki slacks and white cotton shirt neatly pressed
despite the stifling heat. I stand as he approaches, his hand outstretched.
"Mr. Lorenzo, hello." His accent is as genteel as his appearance. "A great pleasure to meet you, Señor Alea." He points me towards a white cane chair, sits beside me. "I’m very sorry to have kept you waiting." Before I can answer, loud noises erupt from the kitchen.

Mirta Ibarra enters with a tray of chilled whiskey. One of Cuba’s best known actresses, she has a way of occupying a space so thoroughly as to immediately make it her own.

She wears her hair in wild brown ringlets, her arms kinetic forces of nature. The serene features of her beautiful face stand out from across the room, familiar to me from her roles in her husband’s films.


After a few words with the housekeeper she approaches me with several great strides, gives me a friendly kiss on the cheek without a word. Our whiskeys served, the three of us sit in a semicircle around a table full of mail and magazines. I say, "I'm sorry to have gotten here before you.".

Mirta looks to Alea for help with the translation, a duty he performs quite amiably over the next two hours. "I had expected you to phone me at one, actually." From the way he looks at me I must look very confused.

"But this is perfectly alright.", he responds quickly.

"Are you sure? I can always come back later if..."

"No, please. This is fine. So, you arrived in Havana today?"

"At eleven."

"And you found the house with no problem?" I hesitate. "No? There was a problem?".

"Actually, I thought on the phone you told me it was #110." I show him the pad I wrote his instructions on. He shuts his eyes. His head shoots up about thirty degrees. "I am so very sorry." Mirta looks fully confused by now. He explains something to her in Spanish before turning back to me.

"Just after hanging up with you I asked myself, ‘Did I just tell him #110 or #105?’ I remember the thought troubling me for hours after that." He leans back in his chair, his fine tapered hands coming to rest on his lap. "You see, that number stays with me from another time. It was the address of a professor of mine when I was young, a special person to me. Sometimes I find myself confusing this number 110 with other numbers I encounter. Either way, we are happy you are with us."

I pass on greetings to them from the American director Randa Haines, a frequent visitor to Cuba who has kindly acted as my referral for this meeting.

"Ah, Randa.", Alea beams. "She is a fine director and a beautiful person." Mirta moves towards a cabinet, returns with a framed color 3x5 of herself with Randa and another American friend. She looks at it for some time as Titon and I keep talking. "Titon" is what Randa said everyone calls Alea here. Though clearly affectionate, I have not asked her or anyone else exactly what it means.

Based on the four films of Titon’s that I’ve seen it could mean clever dissembler, savage humorist or fierce visionary.



Tomás Gutiérrez Alea has made twenty films in the past thirty-eight years, among them the edgy classic of the early post-Revolution era, "MEMORIES OF UNDERDEVELOPMENT" (1968), the first film from post-revolutionary Cuba to be released in the U.S.



is a biting satire on Cuban government bureaucracy as experienced by a young man trying to bury a dead relative. The tyranny of red tape becomes in Alea’s hands a slapstick farce combining the black humor of "CATCH 22" with the hijinks of the Marx Brothers.



Without being asked Titon tells me that his own favorite among his films is "THE LAST SUPPER" (1976), which he also wrote.

Centered on an 18th century slave revolt at a Cuban sugar mill, the film recounts the diabolical plan of a pious Count to trick twelve rebellious slaves into submission by inviting them to a drunken last supper ceremony. Seduced by his generosity and the raging sermon he delivers on the nobility of suffering, all of the slaves but one, Sebastian, think they have found a powerful friend in the Count. As a gesture of his good faith, he gives them and all the other cane workers the next day off. That being Good Friday makes the slaves even more grateful. They cheer the Count until early morning, eventually pass out drunk under his cold sober stare.

Come sunrise the brutal overseer, Don Manuel, rouses the slaves for work. They refuse, citing the Count's gracious dispensation. A slaughter ensues during which the mill is destroyed and many slaves, especially those from the Last Supper scene, are hunted down and brutally killed. Only Sebastian, the reverse Judas figure, escapes with his life. A small scene strikes me in particular. The Count dresses before a crucifix after the mass slaughter, trembles while a priest counsels his tormented soul. "But father," the Count moans. "I can find no peace. I live in constant uneasiness. Even by day I walk lost in a maze of darkness. Where can I find a way out?" The priest supplies him with the very advise he needs to carry out his onerous plan. "In God and only in God."

At the time of our meeting Titon is editing "FRESA Y CHOCOLATE", a 1995 Miramax release co-starring Mirta and an eventual Academy Award nominee for best foreign film.

Titon lays out the basic story for me. "The title translates in English as "STRAWBERRY & CHOCOLATE". It is, how do you call it, a black comedy, about the friendship between a prostitute, a homosexual, and a young Fidel loyalist in contemporary Havana."

I’d hoped to watch Titon at work in the cutting room but he is done for the day and I leave for Miami at seven tomorrow. "I work in the editing room from 8:30 to 12:30 every morning," he volunteers. "The remainder of the day is taken up with my medical treatments, reading and rest." I do not pursue the medical question, instead drag over the large white box which caused Titon and Mirta some concern when they first saw it. "There’s some film equipment and a bunch of other things in here from a list faxed to me by ICAIC." Titon responds with a raising of hands. "Thank you very much. Our film institute needs so many things." I pull out a separate box, tear off the clear bands of tape.

"These are meant for both of you." Titon and Mirta reach into the jumbled mass of yellow notepads, pens, pencils, blank audio and videocassettes, obviously pleased.    

"I’ve also brought some films of mine, as film editor and director." Titon scans each title carefully. "You arrive so prepared, Señor Lorenzo. Are all Americans this prepared?"

Heading deeper into the box, Titon and Mirta unearth staples, paper clips, #10 rubber bands and other basics required for literary creation. By the look on their faces they haven’t seen this much scotch tape in years.

I ask Mirta about her work. "I am an actress!" She straightens up like someone who really is who they say they are, touches Titon’s hand. "Twenty years we have been together," She tosses a slight look of impatience his way. "And my first film with him comes only after eight years."


She seems proud of herself for having stuck it out so long. Waiting eight years for her husband to find the role most suited to her could not have been easy. Still, it is this kind of care and attention on both their parts that has made Mirta Ibarra the star of Cuban and Latin-American cinema she has become.

Perhaps Titon was afraid to expose someone he loved to the terrible difficulty of making good films in the current economic climate of Cuba.

"My budgets are usually around $300,000 for a feature. $500,000 would be a great epic here. Since there is no hard currency in Cuba now for films, foreign co-productions are essential. My latest film is financed by Spain and Mexico, with Cuban equipment and personnel. This is how it is."

We visit for about an hour before being called to lunch by the housekeeper. "You sit there.", Mirta ladles tangy black bean soup into a bowl for me. Beside a large bowl of fried rice is a plate of salted plantain chips, three strips of marinated flank steak with grilled onions and a basket of bread. Titon takes several tablets from several prescription bottles on a table behind him. Gorda, Titon’s small white dog, stands watch at his feet.

Though they’re both very trim, Titon and Mirta eat with great relish. A man rushes into the dining area, begins a rapid-fire exchange with them. Judging from the frequent use of the word "capacitor" I figure the general subject of discussion must relate to something electrical. My tin-ear Spanish picks up that the whatever device they’re talking about is either a partial or a total loss. The man smiles at me, shakes my hand without being introduced, leaves on a trail of promises to come back soon. Titon explains.

"He is a friend of ours, an excellent mechanic. You see, the air conditioner in my office has gone out of order and there are absolutely no parts to be found to repair it."

"Can't you buy a new one?" I ask naively. Titon translates for Mirta. She laughs quietly.

"No. I'm afraid this is not possible."

"Then what’ll you do?"

Titon flings one arm in the vague direction of the Gulf.

"The Sierra Maestra Hotel is being completely renovated, all new central air conditioning is going in. There is a great pile of the old units there which he will search for the proper fitting part."

He utters this with some pride, proof of the resourceful nature of the Cuban people, still getting things done despite frequent adversity.

I finish my bowl of cherry Jell-O with pineapple and orange wedges, can see that Titon is getting tired. Before I say good-bye he and Mirta let me take a photograph for myself and for Randa.

I’m looking at this picture now, almost three years later, as I prepare to send a new print of it to Mirta in Havana. It is Tuesday, April 5, 1996. I got a call from Randa Haines this morning, the kind of call you know is coming but do not want to receive.

"Titon died this morning around four a.m. our time." We have known for the past several months that he’s been gravely ill, his cancer relentlessly on the march.

I finally reached Titon by phone two weeks ago after several frustrating attempts, listened in anticipation to the double rings separated by heavy static. Mirta answered. It was good to hear her voice, though she seemed tired, worn down. She passed the phone to Titon. His voice was noticeably weaker but still quite like itself. "Good to hear from you, Lorenzo. I am not so well right now. I have to be in this wheelchair. Mirta and I are writing a script together, though, which keeps me busy." I asked if there was anything I could do, though we both knew there was not. I found myself getting very emotional as I listened to him speak the last words I was likely to hear from him. All I could think of in response to this sad situation was to tell him how much understanding I felt he’d brought to the world through his films. There is this great love and tolerance for people shining through them, the same love that’s coming back to him now in spades. He seemed to like that thought. Maybe he was just being polite. We said good-bye and I hung up first. No need to hear me cry.

Randa barely keeps it together on the phone as she reads me a letter to be read at Titon’s funeral in Havana in two days.

Dear Sisters and Brothers,

We grieve with the family of the brilliant Cuban filmmaker Tomás Gutiérrez Alea and all the people of Cuba at the loss of such an esteemed artist, excellent friend and unforgettable comrade. Titon will remain alive and present for everyone in the endless wealth of ideas that flow from each one of the images he created. In Titon’s life is the truth of Jose Marti’s saying, ‘Death is not real if one has accomplished his life’s work well.’ "

As I reread this Titon article I realize that I have not shed the visceral impact of Cuba as quickly as I thought I would. Though I’m back on the freeways again, have wracked up many frequent flyer miles since then, the familiar LA landscapes quiver with impermanence. As I’m driving the sun bursts from behind a building, marks me in its rays, one not half as intense as those that shine on Miramar. Pulled back to that Caribbean whiteness, I recall the last image I have of Tomás Gutiérrez Alea. As we’re leaving his house he lets Gorda off her leash. A taxi has been called, can in fact be heard approaching on the near-empty streets. Titon keeps himself turned away from the direct sun. "Thank you for coming all this way to see me, and for all the helpful things you brought."

"I appreciate you and Mirta taking the time today."

"Perhaps you will return in December for the Film Festival?"

"That would be great." He shakes my hand, waves to me once before turning away. "Until December then, Lorenzo." The cab pulls up. I get into the back seat of the same Fiat that brought me here, though the driver has changed. Pulling away, I look through the back window, see Titon moving northward towards the Sierra Maestra Hotel. His shoulders rise to their true stature for a moment, his pace slow but absolutely sure. Turning from the shimmering water he proceeds the few remaining steps to numero 105, Callé Cero.


Lorenzo DeStefano
Los Angeles – April 1996

© 2001                                                                                   Lorenzo DeStefano


Judy Janda, Mirta Ibarra, Sandra Levinson, Lorenzo DeStefano

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