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Memories of Underdevelopment

by Glenn Erickson Aug 14, 2018

 

Perhaps the top cinematic output of Cuban filmmaking is this investigation of a man that doesn’t embrace the revolution. Wishing to remain apolitical, the handsome Sergio prefers to pursue attractive women, as well as illusions of his own superiority. Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s account of life with Castro doesn’t shirk from an honest view of conditions in the embargoed island, between The Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis.


Memories of Underdevelopment
Blu-ray
The Criterion Collection 943
1968 / B&W / 1:66 widescreen / 98 min. / available through The Criterion Collection / Memorias de subdesarrollo / Street Date August 28, 2018 / 39.95
Starring: Sergio Corrieri, Daisy Granados, Eslinda Núñez, Omar Valdés’ René de la Cruz.
Cinematography: Ramón Suárez
Film Editor: Nelson Rodríguez
Original Music: Leo Brouwer
Written by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, Edmundo Desnoes, from his novel
Produced by Miguel Mendoza
Directed by
Tomás Gutiérrez Alea

 

Welcome to the revolution. Top Cuban director Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s feature film Memories of Underdevelopment is so fascinatingly superior of a look at ‘the state of things’ in Cuba, that it evaded any official attempt to make it conform to Fidel Castro’s edict that all art wholly support La revolucíon. Set between the Bay of Pigs (Playa Girón) Invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis. Its source is a novel by Edmundo Desnoes that takes an intellectually ambiguous attitude toward the social changes made by Castro’s revolution.

Most surprisingly, the protagonist of Memorias de subdesarrolo has not embraced the new socialist regime. Castro Cuba’s ICAIC produced a range of films, but most pictures set in the present openly endorsed the new order. Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s curious camera simply listens while its ‘undecided’ main character questions everything he sees. Thus the movie’s take on the New Cuba is open to interpretation. It’s also completely absorbing.

 

Filmed in expressive B&W, Memories deftly joins the past and present predicament of Sergio Carmona Mendoyo (Sergio Corrieri) through flashbacks, fantasy images, and first-person narration over views of city life and chosen documentary footage. Sergio is wealthy but newly isolated. His friends, his parents and his unhappy wife Laura (Beatriz Ponchova) have left for new lives in Miami; Sergio has stayed behind for a number of reasons that he realizes are selfish. He has no interest in working, preferring to live in indolent luxury, ‘like a European.’ He’s also a self-indulgent Don Juan, and he believes that he can have his pick of the Cuban women on the street that return his furtive, flirtatious glances. And he does have the excuse that his wife doesn’t want him to follow.

Sergio lives in the penthouse of a multi-story apartment building. It has been expropriated by the authorities so he no longer owns it, but the government has allowed him 13 years to keep collecting rent. Thus Sergio doesn’t work. He instead fancies himself as a possible writer. He once owned a furniture store but tired of business. Once alone, he amuses himself with the telescope on his balcony, goes through the fine things his wife has left behind. He fantasizes amorous scenarios with his attractive maid, Noemi (Eslinda Núñez) and recalls a sad early affair with Helen and his teenage experiences in brothels. The main story thread is Sergio’s relationship with the cute and flirtatious Elena Daisy Granados, a woman he picks up outside ICAIC. Daisy would like to be an actress; their playful encounter soon leads to bed, and Sergio giving her some of his wife’s clothes. But Sergio seems incapable of involvement with anything, even a lover. His thoughts criticize Elena in the same terms he dissed his wife, expressing the opinion that almost all Cuban women are as culturally underdeveloped as the country is economically. Elena doesn’t appreciate art the way Sergio expects, and he grows tired of her. He simply ditches her during a visit to Ernest Hemingway’s home, which is set up as a museum.

 

Three things impinge on Sergio’s peace of mind as he continues his intellectual isolation. Elena’s family takes him to court, charging him with rape; they’ve gotten Elena (who was only 16 when she met him) to misrepresent their affair. Sergio finds himself ‘the rich guy who doesn’t work’ opposed by ‘the people.’ Secondly, officials visit to question him about his living situation. It’s just a survey, but it worries him anyway: will these ‘commissars’ that have taken title to his property, seize it entirely and evict him? And last, Sergio worries that he may be blown to oblivion by a U.S. bomb. His friend Pablo (Omar Valdés) warned that Cuba might be caught in war between the Yankees and the Russians, and the Cuban Missile Crisis is about to begin.

Memories of Underdevelopment is a rich and rewarding picture that charms both sides of the political divide by examining the Cuban revolution from the viewpoint of an alienated bourgeois. Sergio Carmona at one point says that Havana doesn’t look as if it has changed, but the island has already been cut off from most American products. The big department store El Encanto has burned down and the stores are half empty. Considering himself an intellectual, Sergio buys books of philosophy and attends lectures, where we see the author Edmundo Desnoes and American playwright Jack Gelber take part in a debate. But Sergio places himself as an outsider, a slightly uncomfortable observer of a life others are living. He pores over his wife’s fancy possessions. He places a stocking over his face and distorting his features, as if trying to make his alienation visible. While mentally protesting his intellectual superiority, Sergio indulges sex fantasies in which he seduces Noemi and baptises her personally. An unreconstructed womanizer, he takes a completely selfish view of women. He summarizes his opinion with the statement that, ‘somewhere between 30 and 35, Cuban women just rot and become undesirable.’

 

Elena and Sergio’s affair is mutually consensual. He picks her up with a ‘piropo’ complimenting her knees, and she plays and toys with him as much as he flirts with her. We don’t immediately realize how young she is, although we should when she begins answering his questions with romantic lyrics from boleros. In typical playboy fashion Sergio soon finds fault with Elena, and he proves himself a total cad when ditching her. Apparently there is no provision for statutory rape in the law, yet it doesn’t seem wholly unjust when Sergio faces serious charges in court.

Director Gutiérrez Alea effortlessly communicates Sergio’s mental state through creative cinematics. Potent visuals recur, of his wife Laura’s contempt. Some flashbacks are presented in standard form, but one of Sergio’s arguments with Laura is heard on an audio tape that he recorded, and repeatedly plays back. It also shows what a thoughtless person he is, invading Laura’s privacy.

 

We see documentary clips of the Bay of Pigs invasion and other events, but instead of being presented as we’re used to seeing them *, they’re more background for Sergio’s critical comments. There is some play with individual images as well. A cartoon with a big question mark feeds into Sergio’s all-consuming insecurity. The visual button that finishes the apartment interview scene is a close-up of a graphic of a staring eye, over which we read, te estoy cazando. (I Am Hunting You.) In context, it expresses Sergio’s feeling of paranoia — like the Orwellian catchphrase about Big Brother Watching You.

At one point Alea cuts to a curious series of shots that we at first think are more of Sergio’s sexually charged memories — bits of nudity or sexual encounter repeat four or five times each, with repeating music. It turns out that Sergio is in a screening room introducing Elena to a filmmaker friend (Alea himself). Alea is screening a reel of film that some pre-Castro censor has built — bits of nudity snipped from release prints. Four copies of each deletion, presumably because Havana received four prints. I recognize but can’t place a topless dancer in one of the clips. As Sergio’s previous idle sex fantasies about Laura and Noemi are almost identical, a nice statement is made about male preoccupations being formed by sexy movies. Images of Marilyn Monroe and Brigitte Bardot appear as well: as Sergio’s opinion of Cuban women sours, his mind returns to the ‘developed’ sex symbols of Hollywood and Paris.

 

Sergio’s impressive first-person narration tells us that he doesn’t feel attached to anything, that he feels like a dead man. He also describes the ‘underdeveloped’ citizens around him as zombies. Over film of the captured Bay of Pigs combatants, Sergio notes that people hide in the anonymity of large groups, claiming to agree with the group’s goals. But when put on trial, the first thing the invaders do is claim that they are individuals not responsible for the aims of the group. The elitist intellectual Sergio has enjoyed the luxury of not having to choose sides. He has abstained from political commitment in the same way he’s sidestepped serious personal relationships. With armored convoys rolling on Havana’s waterfront highway and anti-aircraft guns being placed on the buildings around him, Sergio does not at all feel secure.

Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s film is a modern masterpiece that uses New Wave technique better than the French do. It’s intensely Cuban. The fact that Havana is seen through the eyes of a wayward rake doesn’t discount his observations that plenty of Cubanas happily play the sexist courtship games on the street, and in the cafés and bookshops. Above that, Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s vision at Havana is unlike that of Mikhail Kalatozov in Soy Cuba or even Carol Reed in Our Man from Havana: we’re in the streets among the people, not hanging around tourist sites. Lottery tickets are still being sold. Sergio finds fully-stocked bookstores, and buys a paperback of Lolita. A friend talks about the last American movie he saw, The Best of Everything. When Sergio passes a news stand, one display contains Spanish-language government publications with communist graphics and images of Che Guevara. But an ordinary standee is filled with trashy pulp pocketbooks — and the novelization of Forbidden Planet!

* The two or three political ICAIC short subject films I saw play like something concocted for Nineteen-Eighty Four: dynamic militaristic images of troops and armaments heralding the defense at Playa Girón, flashing images of Fidel, Lenin and Mao, drums on the soundtrack, and furious text graphics with slogans, or just provocative words. You’d think the films were concocted for mass rallies, with audiences expected to cheer and boo wildly on cue.


 

The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray of Memories of Underdevelopment is a fine 4K restoration of this marvelously entertaining picture, with its sexy romance between the spoiled landlord and the frisky young lady he picks up on a staircase. The excellent B&W image is properly framed and graded; I believe I tried to watch it once on PBS and that found the old subtitles were inadequate (as it is, the English subs for one statement by Edmundo Desnoes didn’t play on my machine). Some of the newsreel footage is scratched, as it always was, and a clip of Fidel Castro filmed from a TV screen is of course degraded.

Criterion’s disclaimers apologize for deficiencies in picture and audio that I did not notice. It’s all good.

Disc producer Kate Elmore lines up some fine extras (full list below). The author Desnoes appears in an interview, as do some critics to discuss the film. A long-form docu tells the entire career story of Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, and an interview with actress Daisy Granados gives us insights into the movie filming scene in the early years of the revolution. Before cast as Elena, Daisy turned down the role of Noemi over the nudity issue.

We know the barriers are problematic so we’re all the more pleased that Memories of Underdevelopment should appear in such a fine presentation; earlier DVD compilations of Cuban feature films haven’t fared as well. Is it too much hope to someday see Humberto Solás’ Lucía or Manuel Octavio Gómez’s La primera carga al machete (The First Charge of the Machete)?

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


Memories of Underdevelopment
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements (from Criterion): New interviews with film critics B. Ruby Rich and José Antonio Évora, and with novelist and screenwriter Edmundo Desnoes. Titón: From Havana to ‘Guantanamera,’ a 2008 feature-length documentary on director Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s life and career; Segment from a 1989 audio interview with Gutiérrez Alea; Segments from 2017 interviews with actor Daisy Granados and editor Nelson Rodríguez from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Visual History Program collection; Trailer, Plus illustrated foldout with an essay by author Joshua Jelly-Schapiro.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 12, 2018
(5799memo)
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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.