Dialectical from opening title to final image, “One Way or Another” — the first and only feature by the Afro-Cuban director Sara Gómez — introduces itself as “a film about real people, and some fictitious ones.” That’s one way to describe this deft mixture of cinéma vérité, ethnographic documentary, feminist social realism and class-conscious revolutionary romance.
“One Way or Another” opens Friday for a weeklong run at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Restored from its original 16-millimeter, the film looks terrific, and, despite its nostalgia for the ideals of the Cuban revolution, it feels as relevant today as it did in 1974.
While “One Way or Another” never had a formal release in the United States, it has surfaced periodically in film series, including one at BAM five years ago that was devoted to Black women’s cinema. (Reviewing this series, to which “One Way or Another” lent its name, the New York Times critic Manohla Dargis called it “a still-exciting mixture of documentary and narrative fiction.”)
“One Way or Another” could be described as a love story involving two photogenic young people — a macho worker, Mario (Mario Balmaseda, who was a professional actor), and a schoolteacher, Yolande (Yolanda Cuéllar, who was not). But it has more on its mind.
Mario, a mulatto laborer, grew up on the mean streets of Havana’s Miraflores district; Yolanda, who is white, educated and middle class, has been assigned to teach in a Miraflores primary school. Both have workplace issues. Mario is implicated in a buddy’s misconduct; Yolanda is repeatedly advised to be more diplomatic in dealing with her pupils’ impoverished parents.
Given their backgrounds, the lovers often misunderstand each other. Context is all. Their most intimate conversation is in the “neutral” territory of a tiny posada, or hotel; their story is interspersed with interludes concerning the history and legacy of slavery — including the African religion Santería and the all-male secret society Abakuá.
Shots of slums and slum clearance provide a metaphor for the creation of a new society and a new consciousness. That the principles come together and drift apart amid a constant interplay of destruction and construction suggests that their relationship — like the Cuban Revolution — is a perpetual work in progress. Didactic as it is, “One Way or Another” can be taken for socialist realism, but if so, it is a highly original and even critical variant. (The “positive hero,” an axiom of the mode, is an Afro-Cuban musician and former boxer, Guillermo Diaz, who supplies a song demystifying traditional gender roles.)
Trained as a musician, Gómez made a score of short documentaries. (She also served as an assistant director on Agns Varda’s 1963 documentary “Salut les Cubains” and can be seen dancing the cha-cha at the movie’s conclusion.) “One Way or Another” is so brimming with life and ideas that it is shattering to learn that Gómez died, at just 31, while editing it — she succumbed to a severe asthma attack amid complications giving birth to her third child.
The postproduction was completed by her colleagues, and the movie was not shown until 1977. Since then, it has been recognized as a landmark of feminist, neorealist, Communist, Cuban, Latinx, Third World and simply world cinema.
One Way or Another
July 8-14 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in Brooklyn; bam.org.