Regularly heralded as the greatest Cuban film of all time, Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s Memories of Underdevelopment is a ranging, challenging work. A cine-essay blend of fictional narrative and documentary observation, it stands out even in the febrile atmosphere of post-revolutionary Cuba. The 1960s saw a number of widely touted films from what is often referred to as the country’s cinematic golden age: from Mikheil Kalatozishvili’s I Am Cuba to Humberto Solás’ Lucía, by way of ‘urgent cinema’ and Santiago Alvarez’s proto-music video Now.
Much appraisal comes from the lips of its protagonist, Sergio (Sergio Corrieri), an urbane Europhile intellectual who decides to remain in Havana when his wife and parents flee to America shortly after the Bay of Pigs fiasco. He’s a self-styled anthropologist, observing the people of a declining society after a revolution he cannot really fathom. He bandies around the term ‘underdevelopment’ not primarily in the economic or industrial sense that it is more often employed, but in reference to the women he meets and lusts after. He typifies their problem as “an inability to establish links between things, to gather experience and grow”.
Sergio obsessively listens to a recording of an antagonistic exchange with his ex-wife, but when he meets a new young women, the 16-year-old Elena (Daisy Granados), he gravitates towards recreating what he has lost, furnishing her with his wife’s old European-style dresses. In many senses Elena is a cypher for a Cuba that is defiled by Western influences, but the way in which Sergio escapes punishment casts a clearly critical eye on the country’s own direction. This is also reflected in Sergio’s maintained status as a member of the bourgeoisie. He still lives in a large, glamorous, well-serviced apartment. He still receives income for property.
Sergio can still use his time to wander Havana’s streets on a perpetual dérive, continually exasperated by a people he can’t understand. Sergio’s clear alienation is an echo of prevailing European cinematic trends of the time. This Euro-inflected narrative jangles against the vitality of Alea’s style in the same way that Sergio does against the world around him. Alea playfully utilises Western inspiration with one hand and subtly condemns it with the other. He is keen never to completely unwrap this enigmatic national portrait. Instead he punctuates it with documentary, or documentary-like, interludes of various kinds and flitting through time.
These asides express the fervour of the country – particularly palpable in the year between the Bay of Pigs and the Missile Crisis, which serve as the narrative’s start and end points – and fill in the explicit political commentary that Sergio notably tends to omit. They provide the Cuban flavour that juxtaposes against the European existentialism, expressing the protagonist’s turmoil through form while allowing Alea to take sly shots in various directions, imbuing this complex work with vital energy. Memories of Underdevelopment is ripe for rediscovery.
Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson