Memories of Underdevelopment
Memorias del Subdesarrollo
Directed by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea
As the revolution itself, the creation of the Instituto Cubano de la Industria Cinematográfica (ICAIC— Cuban Film Institute) on March 24, 1959, changed everything on Cuba. Since then (only two months and three weeks after the beginning of the revolution) all matters involving film were concentrated in ICAIC. The words “Film is an art,” written in the original declaration that established ICAIC as a revolutionary institution, set the stage for the high standards demanded of Cuban filmmaking. Cuban cinematography, especially during the mythic years of the first decade of the triumphant revolution, has been characterized by high artistic level and loyalty to the revolution, while at the same time reflecting the contradictions and problems of the national reality.
Director Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, the most renowned director of Castro-era Cuba (famous for making Cuba’s first gay-themed movie, 1993’s Strawberry and Chocolate), was a middle-class university-educated Cuban but still a devoted supporter of the revolution and somebody who did his work in the pay of the state. He went along with revolution despite some of the doubts about emerging bureaucratism. His Memories of Underdevelopment stands as one of the best examples of Cuban artists' independence and efforts to create whole new forms for political art. Of all the dozens of films produced in Cuba in first decade of revolution, through Castro's insistence on the importance of the cinema, this film is the most sophisticated. So much so, in fact, that those opposed to the revolution called it a magnificent and unrepeatable fluke, that seems to look on actually successful revolution with dejection and frustration. Those in favour cherished it as a landmark that avoided almost all of the radical cliches. Since he supported revolution we can presume that Alea wanted us to see the fate that befalls someone who does not directly endorse revolutionary activities, but he was far more than a mere propagandist and to most of the viewers the film has mixed messages.
Memories of Underdevelopment, hailed as one of the finest films ever to come out of Cuba, details the relation between the personal and the political, and intellectual's alienation within a changing, proletarian society. Historically, the time is very specific; its 1961 and the film is placed between the exodus after the disastrous US-led Bays of Pigs invasion and the missile crisis of the following year. Alea based his work on the novel of Edmundo Desnoes (published in English as INCONSOLABLE MEMORIES), the diary of a bourgeois intellectual that has literally stayed behind the revolution, a story about an isolated man in an isolated country.
The main character of the movie Sergio (Sergio Corrieri) is not a typical face for Cuban Revolution, which was praising simple hard-working people, poor farmers from remote areas, neglected under the previous system people of colour. The contrast between him and Cuban masses is underlined in the shots of the Cuban people on the street and particularly at the dance at the beginning of the film. That moment establishes a sense of race in the movie, we can see that Sergio, a tall, middle-aged, fair man who looks like a gringo and is deliberately shown as very white against his background - something that is easily noticeable for Latin American audience, as skin colour is often an index of class there. It seems that Alea deliberately used such a fair protagonist to emphasize in visual terms this middle class and intellectual's alienation from the people. Sergio simply doesn't belong to “pueblo”, he's a wealthy man who thinks of himself as Europeanized. For reasons that he cannot quite explain ("to see how it all turns out"), he chooses to remain in post–revolution Cuba even as his mother, father, wife and most of the friends flee to Miami. But he stays in the new Cuba drifting along without meaning and purpose. Unable to write the novel he wants, he spends his days smoking in bed, looking out of a telescope through his window, taking walks, chases women. Alea shows him living untroubled and alone in luxury, in an apartment that could have housed a family or two. We learn that his income comes from monthly state payments for a building of his which had been confiscated, payments he will receive for several years more. The film focuses on Sergio's thoughts and experiences as he is confronted by the new reality and uncertain mood of Havana just after the revolution. He is fundamentally an alienated, indifferent towards politics, an observer rather than a participant. He is, in fact, the sort of man with whom we can easily identify from our experience of European films and literature. The difference is that he is placed in exceptional circumstances and finds it difficult to understand them. Memories is one of the best films ever made about the sceptical individual's place in the march of history.
Sergio prides himself on his urbanity (significantly, Memories of Underdevelopment is thoroughly urban - set in Havana, in Sergio's opinion once "the Paris of the Caribbean", now the "Tegucigulpa") and is obsessed with Cuba's underdevelopment. But to see and criticize Sergio as bourgeois is too easy. Sergio is not one who flees to the United States. He has an acute intellect and sees much that is true about Cuba and especially is very aware about himself. He's scornful of his bourgeois family and friends, he rejects most of the Cubans of his class, his wife Laura and his friend Pablo especially, as superficial, greedy, and self-deceiving. But he also rejects the naivety of those who believe that everything can suddenly be changed and he doesn't commit himself to revolution. A key prop in the film is a telescope installed on the porch of his apartment. Early in the film Sergio looks through it at a couple making love. At the end of the film he looks down on the mobilization for the missile crisis, in which the whole of Havana is unified in the face of impending destruction. Even this moment reveals Sergio's paralysis. His tragedy is that he can only dimly understand what part he plays in the situation he finds himself in and he remains a passive player, unable to act in history.
The film moves back and forth through time, since Sergio turns frequently to his memories to try to understand what is happening to him. Because of the documentary footage, the revolution is always in the background. The difficulty and allure of “Memories of underdevelopment” lies in its stylistic eclecticism and formal experimentalism. This film unites various narrative strategies, blending fiction, still photography and rare documentary footage. Those documentary sequences interspersed throughout the film have no apparent connection to the narrative but show that no one living in revolutionary Cuba is able to escape the presence of history. The revolution is omnipresent.
Women are another obsession of Sergio. He thinks of Cuban women as intellectually and culturally underdeveloped and feels the urge to dominate and manipulate them. He has an affair with a young woman, Elena, whom he picks up on the street and whom he tries to educate by taking to bookstores, modern art galleries and museums in order to expose her to culture and model her to fit his ideal of the bourgeois Cuban woman. But at one point he reflects, "I discovered Elena didn't think as much as I did. I try to live as a European and she makes me feel the underdevelopment at every step." He regards her as a primitive: "She doesn't relate to things," he tells himself. Like other Cuban women has an "inability to accumulate experience, to develop.” Sergio's constantly devaluates Cuban women. But Alea doesn's show Elena and her family up as idealized examples of the Cuban people, dignified or even right. Whereas Sergio is wrong to think of Elena as underdeveloped in the way he does, taking her to museums to improve her mind, Elena, representative of “pueblo” doesn't have revolutionary goals either. Indeed the whole wit of the sequences with Elena's family comes from the inappropriateness of their actions in a presumably revolutionary society. As they blackmail Sergio, they acting out what would have been their best defence in that situation under previous system, but they are doing so in a post-revolutionary time. The film show this family's treating a female child as property. Elena is depicted as victimized both by Sergio and by her family, to which victimization she acquiesces.
Although directed by a Cuban who supported the revolution and remained in Cuba until his death, the film has a European sensibility, interlacing fiction and documentary footage and using poetic images, literary narration, flashbacks, and newsreel footage reminiscent of Alain Resnais' Hiroshima Mon Amour. Memories is a complex and probing film about the dilemma faced by intellectuals in Cuba following the revolution. What should intellectuals do if they are sympathetic to socialism? How do they "join" the working class? According to some reviewers, that the film does not answer this question is one of its main strengths, saving the film from dogmatism. The self and society, private life and historical situation—this is the core of the film and it portray this relationship powerfully. Memories of Underdevelopment remains quite difficult and enigmatic but tremendous work.