There were nearly 700 cinemas across the island nation, with Havana having more than New York or Paris. Today, most sit in disrepair. Photographer Carolina Sandretto set out to capture their majestic grandeur while they’re still standing.
Carolina Sandretto was getting discouraged. On her second trip to Cuba, in 2013, the Italian photographer was lugging her medium-format Hasselblad film camera through the humid streets of Pinar del Río, two hours southwest of Havana, waiting for her next subject to come into view. “Projects choose their own photographer and not the inverse. It’s a bit magical,” she explains. When she spotted two women strolling by with a parasol and a child, she quickly readied her finger on the shutter and snapped away.
Sandretto got the shot, but when she looked closer, she noticed an abandoned cinema looming behind the trio, a patinaed yellow fossil from the 1960s. The beauty of the building—and the grand but fading legacy of cinemas on the island—let her know that she had her next project.
At the start of the Cuban Revolution in 1953, there were almost 700 movie theaters in Cuba, with 134 in Havana alone. Attending the cinema was a weekly ritual, a communal way of sharing culture. Over the past few decades, some theaters have been refurbished as dance studios, but the majority have fallen into disrepair, with only 19 operating on the island today. Sandretto set out to photograph as many of the old buildings as she could, capturing 380 of them in her book, Cines de Cuba.
Even with a scarcity of places to watch movies, Cuba still has a strong relationship with film. “Cubans have this huge and very important tradition in movie-making, and still have incredible moviemakers and a flourishing scene,” Sandretto says. “I have rarely encountered as many Federico Fellini fans as I have in Cuba.” In fact, the Havana Film Festival celebrates its 40th anniversary at the end of the year.
Sandretto was 12 when she received her first camera and has been shooting ever since. She’s photographed an abandoned mining city in the Arctic Circle and glaciers in Antarctica. Though she prefers not to define her style, she admits portraiture is her favorite, even if she tends to opt for non-sentient subjects. “I decided to treat all the Cuban cinemas as if they were people,” Sandretto says. “I photographed them with the same camera that I use for human subjects.”
Cuba has always intrigued Sandretto, who started scouting the island for inspiration in 2009. At first, she only saw the tourist-filled capital, but when she returned in 2013, she made her way to other towns and villages. “Cuba is extremely complicated,” Sandretto says. “I knew I had only seen the first layer in Havana, which—don’t get me wrong—is very beautiful. But I wanted to find another layer.”
When she stumbled on the abandoned cinema in Pinar del Río, she started researching for more. “But it’s not like you can use Google Maps and find all the abandoned cinemas on the island,” she says. She started asking locals for insight and stumbled on a small market in downtown Havana that sold old books. The owner of one of the stalls tracked down a booklet from 1953 that listed all of the cinemas on the island, the films they were screening that week and the price. “It was like a TV Guide,” she says. “And a miracle!”
Sandretto was shocked that there had been so many cinemas. To find them, she’d visit for weeks at a time, exploring the 777-mile-long island, an exercise that revealed the country’s architectural eras. The oldest movie houses had been converted from live-performance theaters, some dating back to 1890. “They used to open the roof so that you could get the fresh air of the Cuban night coming in,” she says. As movies soared in popularity, six of Cuba’s opera houses were renovated into cinemas. “There’s one that looks exactly like the [neoclassical] La Scala in Milan,” Sandretto says, “and another that’s a smaller version of [Baroque Revival] Palais Garnier in Paris.”
From the 1920s through the ’40s, art deco was all the rage, with cinemas boasting giant foyers and red velvet seats. In the 1950s, graphic neon signs with big names and bright lights began appearing on the island, similar to Hollywood. “Cuba was filled at that time with very wealthy and glamorous people and in a complete economic boom,” Sandretto says. Entrepreneurs on the island started investing in movie-making, and American companies such as 20th Century Fox, Columbia Pictures and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer were constructing and operating cinemas.
After the Cuban Revolution, when American movies were banned on the island, massive brutalist theaters went up. Residents flocked to the theaters, not only for date night but also to entertain children during the summer. “A lot of older people told me that the cinema is where they found love—either a wife or a husband,” Sandretto says. “For another generation it was a babysitter, a safe place for parents to leave children if they wanted an afternoon alone.”
Even as circumstances changed in Cuba through the years, the country never lost its affinity for films, and today queues still form before showtimes. But maintaining hundreds of theaters in the decades after the revolution was an insurmountable task for the Cuban government, and many of the buildings fell into disrepair and were abandoned.
Today, as movie theaters around the world face a similarly uncertain future, the carcasses of these theaters still stand, but most are not maintained, which is why Sandretto set out to document as many as she could before it was too late.
Many residents helped her photograph the cinemas, some even unlocking chains to let her in the empty, dust-filled spaces. “Cubans are extremely attached to this institution and extremely cautious of an outsider taking photos of it,” Sandretto says. “More than once they’d tell me that the cinema is their patrimony, and I understood that this project was important not just to me but also to the people of this country.”