Farewell to Havana’s Chaplin Cinema

Irina Pino

The Charles Chaplin Theater housed the Cuban Cinemateque for over 50 years. Photo: Juan Suárez

HAVANA TIMES — Days ago, I received the sad news that Havana’s Charles Chaplin Theater had ceased to be Cuba’s Cinematheque. The cinema operated as such for over fifty years and, in my view, fulfilled its task. On January 1st, the Cinematheque was moved to the smaller 23rd y 12th Street movie theater a block away.

At the Chaplin, I was exposed to film directors and masters such as Alfred Hitchcock, Kurosawa, Bergman and Scorsese. I entered Tarkovsky’s magic world with Solaris and The Mirror.

There, I enjoyed the comedies of Billy Wilder and saw a color and restored version of Gone with the Wind (a film I’ve seen more than 10 times). The Chaplin also screened Noir and auteur cinema and old films rescued from movie archives. It would make a selection of the most significant of contemporary cinema, putting filmmakers and spectators into constant interaction.

When young, entering the theater was a veritable adventure. My friends and I would dress well and meet, excited over what we were about to see. We would be thrilled starting with the opening credits.

I believe Alfredo Guevara, the co-founder of the Cinematheque and main organizer of the Havana Film Festival, would have been angered by the news, as the Chaplin was the venue of events and festivals that contributed to improving our culture through cinema.

I recall incredible performances by Marlon Brando, James Dean and Bette Davis, actors who exposed us to their tumultuous passions for an hour and a half or two hours at a time. I also recall enjoying films such as Memories of Underdevelopment, Schindler’s List, Hiroshima Mon Amour and Farinelli il Castratto. They are but memories now, as though Casablanca had been filmed without Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart, as though the true essence of these films had vanished.

One night, some friends of mine invited me to watch Hair, a US musical that changed the aesthetic of a genre that had been pure, banal entertainment, proving that music is a vehicle for expressing attitudes and feelings and that it can influence the way people think.

A voluptuous and appealing Marilyn Monroe in Some Like it Hot, accompanied by Tony Curtis and the one-and-only Jack Lemon, the young Robert de Niro driving his cab around the streets of New York, the mysterious Kim Novac in Vertigo and that Charlot, who made bread dance with a fork…they are all like stray ghosts. Seeing them on the unfamiliar screens of 23 y 12, a place that lacks history, wedged between a gas station and some shops, will be strange.

There was no mention of why this change was made. In an article published by the website CubaSi, film critic Luciano Castillo merely mentions the functionality of the small projection rooms, where artistic and cultural materials can be screened.

Many expectations surround the new venue. We are told a second projection room, a gallery, a shop and a café (named Café Buñuel) will be set up there. I wonder: couldn’t they have done all of that at the Chaplin?

Not many people went these days to the Chaplin, which had lost its magic. It was frequented mostly by pensioners in Proyecto 23 (people who pay a set quota to watch films at different theaters), elderly beggars who used the theater to sleep for a few hours and, lastly, veteran celluloid addicts. Now, it will only screen new releases.

Perhaps the future will bring me the surprise that the Cinematheque has returned to the Chaplin. Then, I will no longer feel nostalgia for those days of cinema and glamour.

Irina Pino

Irina Pino: I was born in the middle of shortages in those sixties that marked so many patterns in the world. Although I currently live in Miramar, I miss the city center with its cinemas and theaters, and the bohemian atmosphere of Old Havana, where I often go. Writing is the essential thing in my life, be it poetry, fiction or articles, a communion of ideas that identifies me. With my family and my friends, I get my share of happiness.

3 thoughts on “Farewell to Havana’s Chaplin Cinema

  • This is a universal trend. Here in the U.S., 83% of all films are now viewed at home, either via on-line streming or by DVD’s. It is a pity to see these theatres (we used to call them “art houses,”) die. Why? Because they provided us with a communal experience. After seeing a film, we would adjourn to a local watering hole to discuss it. Just another example of the atomization of the audience. Also, while many good films are still being made, the venues where they used to play, such as the Charlie Chaplin, have now shuttered their doors. About the only place to see them, besides home, are on the campus of a university or college, or in major metropolitan centeres, such as New York and San Francisco. One-by-one, all the “art houses” here in Vermont have been shuttered. Since Habana is one of these major cultural centers, I hope that the Charles Chaplin will be reborn. Wether public or private funding, the prestige of Habana, and Cuba, depends on maintaining these venues. Finally, the government should (continue) to take a hand in supporting and distributing worthwile films that tell stories artistically, rather than the special-effects drek that is so prevelent today.

  • Perhaps, once the “Rstoration” begins it will be rediscovered, restored and reopened through the new money..

  • Do not let it be turned into an American MacDonalds, or an American fast food outlet.

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