Havana, 1961. Sergio Carmona (Sergio Corrieri), a wealthy bourgeois with intellectual aspirations, sees his parents, estranged wife and friends leave Cuba for Miami. Like his friend Pablo (Omar Valdés), Sergio refuses to leave. In the streets of the Cuban capital, Sergio meets Elena (Daisy Granados), with whom he enters into a sexual relationship – with unpleasant consequences. This would be the simplistic way to describe Memories Of Underdevelopment (Memorias Del Subdesarrollo).
It’s worth mentioning some aspects of Cuban reality to help understand this film. After nearly ten years of revolution, Cuba had learnt that its status as an underdeveloped country – exploited for four hundred years, first by Spain and then by the USA – could only be surpassed at the expense of hard labour and sacrifice; a harsh conclusion, as during the first few years the joy of the Revolution’s triumph had caused Cuba to believe that paradise was within arm’s reach.
Memories Of Underdevelopment is a complex film, shot in black and white by Ramón F. Suárez, with a narrative that is a mixture of fiction and reality, often considered Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s best film. Cuban-born director Alea was known for his sharp awareness of post-Revolutionary Cuba in its economical, political and social aspects. His work is representative of the New Latin American cinematic movement of the 1960s and 1970s, a social and political tool that tackled issues of cultural identity and neo-colonialism, rejecting Hollywood’s commercialism and Europe’s art cinema, as due to a lack of resources, aesthetics were often a secondary concern.
Although it was produced by the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry, created in 1959 under Castro’s ideology, it’s neither a work of propaganda nor an apology for Castroism. Alea is known for the objective sociology of his films and this story, written in collaboration with its homonymous novel’s writer, Edmundo Desnoes, tells us about a period of critical importance ranging from the failed invasion of the Bay of Pigs in 1961 to the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. Through Sergio, who rejects and criticises those of his own social class that left Havana, Alea constructs a historical critique in which Sergio regretfully acknowledges his social context’s conformism and cultural underdevelopment.
Sergio’s goal is to become a writer and prove himself he has something to say, but his life has been too comfortable, living off the income of the family business and nationalised properties. He possesses enough culture and critical ability to analyse his surroundings, both people and city, observed through a periscope in his balcony, through which Alea transports us, without losing the socio-political thread, to the man on the street. Corrieri portrays the lead character beautifully, endowing his character with different nuances that enrich the tones of personal seclusion and intellectual displacement.
Inspired by British free cinema, Italian neorealism and mostly French nouvelle vague anti-heroes, Sergio searches memories of a past he can’t get back, torn by his own clarity and solitude, which can’t be shared nor mitigated. Oblivious to the upheaval in the world that surrounds him, he’s caught by the inevitable change that he can’t or won’t embrace. He’s unable to finish the novel he has been writing, but instead spends his time observing and reflecting on the outside world, trying to understand what’s happening. In a way, Sergio’s character reminds us of Meursault, main character in Albert Camus’s The Outsider (L’Étranger), continually feeling strange in a similar environment.
Two other key characters related to Sergio articulate and shape the story – his friend Pablo and his lover Elena. Pablo represents the crumbling bourgeoisie, who lived abusing the power it had. Even then, Pablo reflects that Cuba is nothing more than a toy in the hands of the two great powers of the moment: the USA and the USSR.
Beautiful, young Elena is the other channel through which Sergio analyses the world. She’s a sixteen-year-old working class girl, whom he feels attracted to due to the stark contrast she poses to the life he previously had with his wife, ever-demanding of luxury and frivolities. However, Elena lacks intellectual aspirations and her simplicity further reminds him of the underdevelopment of the country they live in. However, the young woman, despite her apparent feebleness, is fully able to use her attractiveness to seduce and conquer Sergio, once she establishes that he can improve her quality of life, even though he thinks he’s the one conquering her. In a sequence when both are visiting Ernest Hemingway’s house in Cuba, Sergio is interested in a little book from the famous writer’s library – Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov’s 1955 novel, hinting at some similarity with the book’s controversial lovers.
Memories Of Underdevelopment is, above all, an honest film. Alea’s honesty isn’t just about his refusal to make a biased film, but also his refusal to make an objective film – in this Cuban paradoxical scenario, being ‘objective’ would probably be the same as being ‘biased.’ He chose a dialectic path on different stylistic and ideological levels: subjectivity and documentary, memory and reflection, ambiguity and consciousness, compassion and accusation, past and present, but above all, the viewpoint from which one observed the Revolution. Through Sergio’s character, which in almost every way we are inclined to reject, we discover new facets of the reality that surrounds him. His spectator attitude keeps our critical senses awake; at the same time, his views, sometimes exaggerated, and always subjective, are also the object of our criticism.
Memories Of Underdevelopment is a ‘political’ film that challenges such a category because of its integrity as a human experience. It’s probably one of the most accomplished attempts showing the turbulent relationship between historical context and individual consciousness. It’s a cinematic collage, not only because of its diversity and eclectic technique, but also because of its result, combining fact and fiction, artificial and natural, merging them into something that surpasses and transcends the simple sum of separate elements.
Director: Tomás Gutiérrez Alea
Screenplay: Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, Edmundo Desnoes
Cast: Sergio Corrieri, Daisy Granados, Eslinda Nunez, Omar Valdés, René de la Cruz
Language: Spanish (English & French subtitles)
Runtime: 96 minutes
Memories Of Underdevelopment (Memorias Del Subdesarrollo) is now available on Blu-ray.