Feb 11, 1998 at 12:00 am

Guantanamera!, the final film by Cuban filmmaker Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, is a dazzling "socio-drama," engaging and paying homage to his country on numerous levels. And what a career epilogue it is, exploring personal and political issues with an ease attained despite the collaboration of three screenwriters as well as the co-direction of his longtime partner, Juan Carlos Tabio (Alea's collaborator on several films, including Strawberry and Chocolate).

The movie's mirth begins when Aunt Yoyita (Conchita Brando), on her return to the town of Guantanamera, is reunited with her first love Candido (Raúl Eguren) after 50 years' detachment from both. In talks with her niece Georgina (Mirtha Ibarra), a schoolteacher, Yoyita hesitates about seeing Candido again, but is convinced anyway. "He's no 18-year old now, either," Georgina notes. Their meeting is simply splendid with reminiscences and old records, that is, until Yoyita falls into Candido's loving arms, swoons and dies.

In hopes of promoting himself as a politician, Georgina's husband Adolfo (Carlos Cruz) has helmed a plan to cut Cuban fuel consumption in funeral transports, by changing the retinues' vehicles at each town during the trips. A bizarre outing then comes together, as Yoyita's casket must be driven to Havana by Georgina, Candido, Adolfo and a chauffeur. And even stranger twists unfold.

Alea muses at length on many of Cuba's modern problems and issues with depth, subtlety and, most importantly, humor. In a parallel to Candido's tragic romance, Georgina runs into Mariano (Jorge Perugorria), a former student and admirer of hers at a pit stop. But when one of Mariano's jealous girlfriends catches up to these lovebirds, the feathers &emdash; and blunt objects &emdash; fly. Alea's scenarios are mostly lyrical, but a series of images on the road ("Socialism or death" reads graffiti on a wall) bear overtly political messages as well. Alea and his co-writers balance all of this easily and hilariously.

The film retains a fulfilled tone of romance right through to the end, and at least two of its subplot lines work as modern parables. Despite an equivocal resolution, Alea does seem to be championing the demise of old institutions and causes. A wonderful driving sequence in the rain, complete with voiceover (by Alea himself?), brilliantly confirms this narrative from a film that is sprawlingly complex. By this point, it is evident that Alea has served well &emdash; and transcended &emdash; Cuba's cause.

Viva Guantanamera!

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