Judge William Lee tends to agree with that guy on the other side of the looking glass.
"Destiny is inevitable. Don't try to avoid it, just accept it. You can't change its course with your spirit or will."
One of the most controversial movies in Cuban cinema history, Alice in Wondertown was banned in that country after four days of showings, and was only made available for international distribution years later. The film has an enduring satirical edge, but the poor visual presentation is a hindrance to fully engaging with its story.
Facts of the Case
Alicia (Thais Valdes) is a drama teacher looking for a change and a chance to make a worthy contribution to the cultural fabric of her country. When she accepts a job in the town of Maravillas, she has no idea that she is the only person to willingly enter that community. The town is filled with workers and officials who have been disgraced or ruined in one sense or another. Essentially, they have been exiled to Maravillas as punishment or to shut them up. Alicia is no mindless conformist, but she's trapped in a town with no one to trust.
Alice in Wondertown, or Alicia en el Pueblo de Maravillas, is inspired by Lewis Carroll's novel and given a satirical, political twist. The heroine does go through a looking glass at one point and she meets an assortment of odd characters going about strange activities, but her story doesn't rely much on the beloved children's tale. The atmosphere of paranoia might bring to mind a Franz Kafka story and the eerie-absurd quality of the town and its denizens sometimes feels like the village of the cult television show The Prisoner starring Patrick McGoohan.
I have only a basic knowledge of Cuba's history and even less exposure to its cinematic products, but it isn't difficult to see what writer-director Daniel Díaz Torres is saying about Cuban society. Alicia's strength and creativity are threatened in Maravillas where conformity is required. The individual is the fugitive in a community controlled by the thought police. Alicia tries to befriend some residents, and we discover their tales of disgrace in flashback, but they turn out to be unreliable allies. Their spirits are broken and they're willing to tow the party line for fear of…well, not fitting in, I suppose. Is this absurd portrait of life in Maravillas a comment on living in Cuba? Do its citizens simply endure the dogma of Communism, powerless against the corruption of the bureaucracy?
In response to the criticisms against and banning of the movie, the Cuban Film Institute (ICAIC) declared, "No one has the right to hand the film over to the counterrevolutionary on a silver platter. The fact that the film triggered a volley of insults does not discredit it; instead, it is the film that discredits the people who, with their absurd interpretations of the film, do exactly what it has critiqued."
Even without making the direct connections to Cuban society, Alice in Wondertown possesses some strong elements. The events around the town contain enough mystery and the comical touches throughout liven up the proceedings. Even if some gags don't add up to anything in the end—such as the recurring musical cue whenever one character appears in the background—it contributes nicely to the weird energy of the movie. Simple but enjoyable animation is employed for some transitions and featured in a theater screening where a pretty stupid cartoon prompts automatic praise from the townspeople in attendance. The climax borders on the incomprehensible but it's weird enough that it serves as a satisfying resolution to what's been going on.
First Run Features has released Alice in Wondertown under its Cuban Masterworks Collection banner but the transfer shows no corresponding reverence. The movie premiered in 1991, but when I started watching it I thought it was at least 30 years older. The picture quality ranges from mediocre to poor as colors are at variously degraded levels from scene to scene, shadows are murky zones devoid of detail and a constant, light shower of dust and dirt dances across the screen. English subtitles are permanently superimposed on the image over the blurred-out subtitles that were on the source print. The presentation in 1.33:1 full frame differs from the original 1.66:1 aspect ratio reported on IMDb. Considering the sad state of the source print that was used for this transfer, at least the image is consistently stable. The picture is far from ideal but not unwatchable. The mono soundtrack is an adequate accompaniment to the visuals. Primarily dialogue-driven, the audio is clear though slightly flat.
The bonus materials specific to the main feature come on a two-panel, liner note insert. You can read about the director in a brief bio, two paragraphs from an interview conducted in 2000, and his recent statement "To Alice, On Her 17th Birthday." An excerpt from "The ICAIC Filmmakers' Declaration" of 1991 (from which I quoted above) is also on the insert. There isn't a whole lot that can fit on a two-panel insert so it's not an ideal medium for bonus materials. Perhaps if these extras were included as text screens on the DVD they could have been the entire interview and articles instead of excerpted paragraphs? Furthermore, it would have been interesting to see critical reviews from the film's first release and official documents denouncing it.
The only bonus on the disc is a German short film, "Paul Kopinzky," directed by Malte Ollroge. It's an elegant five-minute film that has a good sense for pacing and concise detail before delivering a nice punch line.
Alice in Wondertown is an enjoyable slice of Cuban satire, even if you're unfamiliar with the country's politics. Unfortunately, the substandard presentation does a disservice to the power of the story. Still, it's worth a rental for its cultural significance.
The court believes in fighting the power, but the revolution is hampered by the mediocre presentation of this DVD. Guilty.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
Studio: First Run Features
• Short Film
Review content copyright © 2009 William Lee; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.