At the Crossroads of Revolution and Reconciliation: A Close Look at Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s masterpiece “Memories of Underdevelopment”

Memories of Underdevelopment (1968) – Director: Tomás Gutiérrez Alea

By Remy A. Renault

Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s masterpiece Memories of Underdevelopment (1968) is as much a historical document as it is a film. Set in that precarious window of time between the Bay of Pigs invasion and the point at which the Cuban Missile Crisis reached its climax, the film seemingly registered a history that was still in progress at the time of its making. The confusion plaguing the early years of post-revolutionary Cuba is experienced through the eyes of Sergio, an idler approaching middle-age whose dashed dreams of becoming a writer have been replaced by days spent leering at woman on the streets of Havana. His voiceovers in which he incessantly laments the “underdevelopment” of Cuba suggest aspirations towards a European sense of “cultivation”. These leanings of his, however, as well as his apparent ambivalence towards the revolutionary fervor surrounding him, seem to contradict his expressed disdain for the crass materialism of his wife and parents, who he relievedly sees off at the start of the film when they flee to Miami to escape the ongoing geopolitical turmoil. On the one hand, Sergio’s displacement from his historical moment is amplified by juxtaposing briskly edited archival footage with the languorousness with which the film follows Sergio’s own escapades. Nonetheless, he’s made a conscious choice not to follow in the footsteps of his family and his friend Pablo but rather to reconcile himself to a history he’s still struggling to comprehend. His sympathies with the plight of the developing world in the face of colonialism and the rapacious capitalism of First World powers are even made clear during one archival interlude in which he observes the death toll from malnutrition exceeds that of World War II. 

     Played with a “permanent sneer” by Sergio Corrieri, one may be tempted to initially dismiss Sergio as a mere reactionary and a chauvinist brute.[1] He is both those things in certain measure. However, his sense of inertia is still suggestive of a conflicted soul who can neither embrace nor disavow the ideals of his “underdeveloped” environment as he staunchly rejects the materialism that lies to the north. This sense of limbo serves to highlight the contradictions that still lingered in Cuban society itself, including its hierarchies both social and sexual that inevitably contradicted the ideals of the revolution. Alea was keenly aware of these conundrums, despite his status as a committed revolutionary. He made Memories at a time at which the Revolution was just starting to come of age, the initial euphoria being replaced by more probing questions over how to remake society. Despite a brief sequence in which Sergio’s apartment appears to be getting seized by the government, the impunity with which he is still able to enjoy his bourgeois lifestyle is indicative of the inconsistencies that persisted in the early years of post-revolutionary Cuba. 

     Sergio lives off a sizable rental income, which allows him to lounge around his spacious penthouse apartment where he peruses art books and cranks out single sentences on a typewriter, such as, “All those who loved me and kept bothering me right up to the last minute have left now”, which is, incidentally, the first line of Edmundo Desnoes’ novel Inconsolable Memories on which the film is based.[2] He also fantasizes about his maid, Noemi, who he even likens to Botticelli’s Venus. His relations with Noemi never move beyond distanced admiration, or do they? Of the many women who catch his attention on the streets of Havana, however, one will prove to be the source of future legal trouble for him, and that’s Elena. The sequence in which Elena and Sergio first cross paths on Calle 23 in Havana’s affluent Vedado district puts Alea’s gifts as a filmmaker on full display. His use of silence to build tension is especially impressive. The predatory male gaze of Sergio is constantly juxtaposed with that of Elena as she intermittently peers back towards her predator. The dialog is scant with only their footsteps and ambient street sounds audible. He eventually asks her out only to be quickly rebuffed. Slowly disarming her with his humor, however, even if her armor of coyness never fully dissipates, a brief courtship commences. Elena is an aspiring actress, and Sergio at one point accompanies her to the Cuban film ministry where she auditions for a director friend of his played by Alea himself. Their eventual relationship never develops beyond a dynamic of objectification on his part and mocking resistance on hers, however. Before eventually growing bored of her, Sergio haplessly attempts to civilize and cultivate her by bringing her to art museums and, in one memorable sequence, Ernest Hemingway’s home near Havana where he abandons her on the labyrinthine property only to incur her wrath, as well as that of her family’s. Legal complications then ensue. 

Memories – Dir: Alea

     Gutierrez Alea was a committed revolutionary and a cofounder of the Instituto Cubano del Arte e Industria Cinematográficos (ICAIC), the Cuban film institute founded as a branch of the Ministry of Culture in the wake of Fidel Castro’s overthrow of Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. At around the time of the ICAIC’s creation, Havana had more movie theaters than either Paris or New York, but Cuba did not have a substantial film industry of its own, and Alea was instrumental in laying the groundwork for its subsequent development. Castro was quite cognizant of the potency moving images could have in furthering the revolution’s cause. Che Guevara even commissioned a few documentaries to capture the communists’ land reform efforts, one of which was made by Gutierrez Alea himself, but make no mistake. Despite his political leanings, Gutierrez Alea’s filmmaking efforts amounted to substantially more than mere agitprop. He may have expressed sympathy for film’s potential to advance revolutionary ideas and was less outwardly concerned with European notions of “auteurism”, but Memories suggests otherwise. The film is prototypical of the subjective realism often associated with European auteurs, given how heavily it’s driven by Sergio’s voiceover narration. The camera elegiacally dwells on everything in his path with occasional snippets of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons playing in the background. It’s closing sequence even bears a resemblance to that of Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Eclisse (1962) in both theme and execution. Both films close on a note of indeterminacy regarding the future of nuclear proliferation, and just as Antonioni’s emotionally adrift pair of lovers, played by Alain Delon and Monica Vitti, are swallowed up by a relentlessly encroaching modernity, the “underdeveloped” and defenseless island of Cuba itself is presented as the victim of said modernity by the end of Memories. Sergio, despite his numerous qualms about his home country, has chosen to stay with the ship. For him, First World decadence is not the solution. As the film ends, ominous music, as in L’Eclisse’s ending, accompanies the sight of armored trucks accumulating along the Malecon, another of Havana’s main avenues, suggesting conflict with an unknown outcome is on the horizon. 

L’Eclisse (1962) – Director: Michelangelo Antonioni

     In another of the film’s memorable sequences, we see Sergio standing on his terrace studying the cityscape of Havana before him through a telescope. While doing this, he voices his thoughts on the city as it stands between two pivotal phases in its history. As an example, he observes the now removed imperial eagle in downtown Havana has yet to be replaced by Picasso’s dove and then retorts it’s easy to be a millionaire communist in Paris. A sense of tranquility reigns over the scene itself despite his indirect commentary on the political tumult of the period. We hear the tropical breeze accompanied by the chirping of one of his pet birds. He then discovers another of the birds has died and nonchalantly drops it from his balcony as if the act has little consequence to him personally just like the revolution itself. This coupling of a documentary-like immediacy with which Alea registers the tenor of Cuban society and a more leisurely aesthetic to reflect the detached psyche of Sergio is the film’s primary strength. Nonetheless, the existence of parallel but separate realities appears to be rupturing by the film’s end as a cloud of geopolitical uncertainty begins to hover over Cuba with Sergio no longer immune to its maelstrom. 

Memories – Dir: Alea

     I would just like to end this by saying it’s hard for me to disassociate Memories from Humberto Solás’ Lucia (1968), which was released the same year. On the surface the two films don’t appear to have much in common, aside from being among the most noteworthy works of post-revolutionary Cuban cinema, as well as my introduction to such. They also both feature the actress Eslinda Núñez. Lucia is a series of three vignettes, each set at a crucial moment in Cuba’s history and each about the travails of a woman named Lucia. In each of the three shorts encompassing the film, the woman named Lucia experiences grief at the hands of her loved one. In the first section, set at the time of Cuba’s war of independence from Spain, Lucia is an upper-class woman who’s romantically misled by a suave Spaniard. The second section, which is set in the 1930’s, is focused on a middle-class woman’s struggles against the dictator Machado, and the third section, set just after the revolution, is about an illiterate working-class woman trapped in an abusive marriage. Each section is filmed in a different style to replicate the state of mind of its protagonist. Like MemoriesLucia also engages in a seamless marriage of documentary-like immediacy and a more elegant subjective realism. One could almost say the documentary aesthetic was itself a form of subjective realism, as films like Lucia recruited “documentary techniques to reduce the space between “the cinema” and the lived experiences of its Cuban audiences.”[3] The point was to insist on the “physical truthfulness” of “class struggle”.[4] Memories may not have dealt with class struggle in as direct a manner as the third section of Lucia did, but it was still emblematic of the works of “Third Cinema”, which sought to give a voice to the struggles of the developing world in the post-colonial era, whether that entailed soul searching or more concrete class struggle. 

Lucia (1968) – Director: Humberto Solás

Bibliography:

Desnoes, Edmundo. Inconsolable Memories. Translated by the Author. New York: The New American Library, 1967. 

Downing, John D.H. “Four Films of Tomás Gutiérrez Alea” in Film & Politics in The Third World, edited by John D.H. Downing, 279-301. Brooklyn: Autonomedia, 1987. 

Hagopian, Kevin. “Lucia.” New York State Writers Institute: State University of New York, Accessed February 28, 2022. https://www.albany.edu/writers-inst/webpages4/filmnotes/fns07n4.html.

Jelly-Schapiro, Joshua. “Memories of Underdevelopment: Imaging History.” Current, August 26, 2018. Criterion Collection. 

MacBean, James Roy and Tomás Gutiérrez Alea. “A Dialogue with Tomás Gutiérrez Alea on the Dialectics of the Spectator in “Hasta Cierto Punto”.” Film Quarterly, Vol. 38, No. 3. (Spring, 1985) : 22-29. 

Observations on Film Art. “Politics and Subjectivity: Memories of Underdevelopment on the Criterion Channel.”. May 19, 2019. http://www.davidbordwell.net/blog/2019/05/19/politics-and-subjectivity-memories-of-underdevelopment-on-the-criterion-channel/.


[1] Joshua Jelly-Schapiro, ‘Memories of Underdevelopment: Imaging History’, Current, Criterion Collection, August 26, 2018, https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/5883-memories-of-underdevelopment-imaging-history

[2] Edmundo Desnoes, Inconsolable Memories, trans. the Author (New York: The New American Library, 1967), 13.

[3] Kevin Hagopian, Lucia, New York State Writers Institute: State University of New York, https://www.albany.edu/writers-inst/webpages4/filmnotes/fns07n4.html.

[4] Ibid

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