The Twelve Chairs (Las doce sillas) Review

Cuba, after Castro's revolution. A wealthy woman cannot bear to give away her valuables to the authorities, so she hides them in the linings of a set of twelve chairs. After her death, her nephew Hipólito (Enrique Santiesteban) hears about this. Unfortunately the set of chairs have been co-opted by the State and distributed amongst twelve different people. Hipólito enlists the help of Oscar (Reinaldo Miravalles) to find them again...

That storyline may sound familiar. It’s based on a Russian novel by Ilya Ilf and Yevgeny Petrov, written in 1928, here transplanted to post-Revolutionary Cuba. It’s not the first time this novel was adapted – there’s a 1945 American version called It’s in the Bag. It wasn’t the last: Mel Brooks’s 1970 version is probably the best-known, but 1969’s The Thirteen Chairs (starring the one-off combination of Sharon Tate, Orson Welles, Vittorio De Sica and Tim Brooke-Taylor) is worth noting. There have been three more film versions and a miniseries since then.

Tomás Gutiérrez Alea was born in 1928 and began making short films and documentaries in the 1950s. He was a supporter of the Cuban Revolution, and shortly afterwards co-founded Instituto Cubano del Arte y la Industria Cinematográphicos (ICAIC), which began by making documentaries and newsreels but later expanded into feature films.

The Twelve Chairs was Alea’s second feature. It’s not necessary to know anything about the whys and wherefores of Castro’s Revolution to appreciate it as on the surface it plays as an amusing, if often ironic, comedy. Alea’s cinematic inventiveness is undoubted: the story is set up pre-credits in an animated sequence, and other scenes are shot silent-cinema style. Although the film seems to be sending up its would-be capitalist protagonists, it's not without a sharp eye for the failings of the Revolution which, don't forget, Alea supported.

The Twelve Chairs is an entertaining early feature, if a little lightweight. In its mix of techniques and sardonic tone it looks forward to Alea’s breakthrough film outside Cuba, Memories of Underdevelopment, to be reviewed later today.


The Twelve Chairs is one of a group of four DVDs released by Network in their Cuban Cinema line. The disc is single-layered and encoded for all regions.

The DVD transfer is in the ratio of 1.66:1, non-anamorphic and slightly windowboxed on the left and right. The ratio seems to be correct, but that's the best thing you can say about this DVD, which is overly dark and showing the signs of a standards conversion: ghosting, a running time identical to the cinema release It certainly looks like a video master derived from an old cinema print – and unfortunately that seems to be the case with most of Network's Cuban DVD releases.

The soundtrack is basic mono, as it always has been. Nothing untoward here. English subtitles are optional, if your Spanish is good enough.

There are no extras on this DVD.

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