"Death of a Bureaucrat," opening today at the Inner Circle, may be the most amiable Cuban feature ever distributed in the United States. It scarcely requires an ideological commitment to sympathize with the young protagonist, who is caught in a slapstick nightmare when he attempts to solve a small problem which rapidly inflates into a huge, maddening problem as a result of the red tape inherent in bureaucratic societies.
Does the film mean to imply that the red tape is intensified in bureaucratic societies governed by communism?Probably not, although the implication looks inescapable from a noncommunist perspective. "Death of a Bureaucrat" was made in 1966, and may have been part of an official effort to criticize bureaucratic abuses and absurdities. The contradiction is reflected in a poster proclaiming "Death to Bureaucracy" seen prominently displayed in the office of the offending bureaucracy in the story.
But now? The same abuses and absurdities have surely become more ingrained and institutionalized. A friend who recently visited Cuba concluded that the most effective antidote to the red tape and poor services was bribery. He insisted that the Russians take it for granted, while Americans, preferring a rosy view of socialist reality, tend to inconvenience themselves by pretending that bribery doesn't exist. Joking about tendencies considered open to ridicule in 1966 might seem like a bad joke in 1979.
"Death of a Bureaucrat" seems a revealing relic in another way. It suggests that the talents of director Tomas Gutierrez Alea have gradually dried up. A remarkably discouraging evolution may be traced from this fitful but amusing social satire to the dogged but thoughtful character study of a bourgeois misfit, "Memories of Underdevelopment," made in 1968, and the turgid, dogmatic propaganda play "The Last Supper," made in 1976. The intuitive, playful sensibility that ripples through "Death of a Bureaucrat" never even threatens to surface in the ritualistic, humorless "Last Supper."
The complications in "Death of a Bureaucrat" stem from the death of an entrepreneur, a sculptor and inventor who succeeded in making a Rube Goldberg machine that mass-produced busts of national heroes or loved ones. As a gesture of affection, his co-workers bury his work card with him. Unfortunately, his widow discovers that she will need to present this very card in order to receive a state pension. What appears to be a mere technicality is soon transformed into an obstacle course of paperwork, divided authority and buck-passing encountered by the widow's nephew, who volunteers to handle the problem for her.
Eventually, only direct action will suffice: The nephew becomes a grave robber in order to retrieve the card. When circumstances prevent him from speedily returning the coffin to its grave, the young man becomes even more frantic than he was when struggling to get it out. Indeed, the frustrations he suffers trying to put uncle back in his plot in the state cemetery drive the poor boy around the bend.
Alea is at his most effective when observing comic behavior with a dry incidental humor reminiscent of the better Czech movies of the '60s. For example, there's a neat bit of business involving a supervisor in a vast government office who doles out sheets of toilet paper to an anxious subordinate, who hurries off as soon as he gets the number he's presumably entitled to. There's also a distinctive humorous tone to the way the aunt, played by Silvia Planas, tries to urge the nephew, Salvador Wood, to curry favor with his boss: "I know that pull is a thing of the past, but a friend is a friend." That's eloquent comedy dialogue, and it's reinforced by Gaspar de Santelices' robust caricature of the boss, a functionary fat-cat.
Alea is less successful at staging elaborate slapstick climaxes in affectionate imitation of the silent comedies, notably the anarchic two-reelers of Laurel and Hardy. He may also be detected stealing the best-known gag from the American film "Cat Ballou," which came out in 1965.
At best a mild diversion and retrospectively interesting curio, "Death of a Bureaucraft" is rather too marginal to justify a special effort, but it's more accessible and rewarding than most of the Cuban features that have reached this country. The comic exaggeration barely conceals the widespread, commonplace nature of the young hero's frustration with bureaucratic confusion and irresponsibility. The denouncement also implies that the situation can only get worse. One suspects that the worsening tendencies have gone so far that an update of "Death of a Bureaucrat" would probably be unthinkable, and Alea might be the last filmmaker to think of it. CAPTION: Picture, Salvador Wood and Silvia Plabas in "Death of a Bureaucrat"