Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s gutsy Memories of Underdevelopment is a difficult work of political activism. This stirring blend of narrative fiction, still photography, and rare documentary footage catalogs the many intricacies and contradictions of a bourgeois Cuban intellectual’s loyalty to Fidel Castro’s revolution. Though Gutiérrez Alea himself was devoted to the cause, his films forever scrutinized the self-devouring nature of Castro’s Cuba. If Mikhail Kalatozov’s I Am Cuba championed the need for revolution in the country, Memories of Underdevelopment contemplates the failure of the new government to recognize the bourgeois threats to anti-capitalist ideology that remained in Cuba in the wake of Fulgencio Batista’s fall.
When his wife and parents leave for America after the Bay of Pigs invasion, 38-year-old playboy Sergio (Sergio Corrieri) resigns himself to a ritual of neurotic self-analysis. From his apartment, inside the building he owns, Sergio observes the threat of foreign invasion that haunts the hazy, not-so-distant horizon. Bored and unemployed, he chases after women all over Havana before finally meeting and bedding 16-year-old Elena (Daisy Granados), who he seemingly attempts to mold after his ex-wife by giving the young girl the woman’s hand-me-downs. If Alea deliberately likens the virginal Elena to a country that welcomes its own defilement, Sergio’s acquittal by the courts (he’s accused to raping the girl by her parents) is no doubt indicative of the man’s obsession with Cuba’s own defilement of its Marxist loyalties.
The underdevelopment of the film’s title refers both to Cuba’s political stagnation and Sergio’s own sense of false enlightenment. The way Gutiérrez Alea pieces together the film must count as its own act of political resistance: The documentary footage calls attention to a complex individual-group dialectic tearing up the country from the inside, while a series of self-referential, surrealist interruptions seethe with better-than-here hopefulness. “She makes me feel underdevelopment everywhere,” says Sergio of Elena before visiting the home of Ernest Hemingway, who according to Sergio killed animals and mounted them on his walls so that the writer wouldn’t have to kill himself. One of Gutiérrez Alea’s most jarring framing devices situates Elena as an exotic specimen (“a beautiful Cuban señorita”) trapped beneath the lens of American imperialism—the point being that, like Hemingway and Elena herself, it’s only a matter of time before Cuba itself would self-destruct.
The film is haunted by a particular image that appears early on: the painted face of poet and revolutionary José Martí’s withering to near obscurity on the wall of a building. Hiroshima Mon Amour is a major point of reference for Gutiérrez Alea. In both Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima and Gutiérrez Alea’s Havana, human ghosts come to grips with the implications of their past and grapple with the weight of building a new present for themselves. Like Elena, Cuba struggles to “establish links” between its war-torn past and disenchanted present. Memories of Underdevelopment remains a difficult and enigmatic work precisely because Cuba has yet to emerge from a kind of historical and cultural vacuum created by the vise of foreign threats, invasions, and embargoes. And like Sergio, the country and its people can only helplessly wallow in the unfulfilled promise of its revolutionary consciousness.
A lengthy text prologue that precedes the feature on this Criterion Collection release details the considerable degradation of the film’s original negative, from dirt and scratches to significant vinegar syndrome. Without this preamble, however, it would be nearly impossible to tell what a sorry state the film existed in prior to the restoration by the Cineteca di Bologna, in association with the Instituto Cubano del Arte e Industria Cinematográficos (ICAIC). Damage still marks the still photographs and documentary footage that Tomás Gutiérrez Alea incorporated into Memories of Underdevelopment, but the film’s original elements look pristine. Contrast is stable throughout, with the director’s street-shot footage boasting gray ranges and facial details every bit as deep as the more professionally lit scenes of Sergio’s reveries. The monaural soundtrack is free of hisses and pops, and the overlapping dialogue, radio broadcasts, and political speeches that constantly ring in Sergio’s ears are rendered with perfect clarity.
Critics B. Ruby Rich and José Antonio Évara each recorded interviews for this release, explicating the film’s contradictory dialectical impulse and ultimate political ambivalence, while screenwriter Edmundo Desnoes extensively discusses the themes of his novel and subsequent script, working with Gutiérrez Alea and his own belief and eventual disenchantment in the Cuban Revolution. An archival interview with Gutiérrez Alea offers insights into the director’s rigorously intellectual insights, but also his delight in spontaneity, as evidenced by his anecdotes about how certain scenes in the film came about through pure serendipity. Actress Daisy Granados and editor Nelson Rodríguez talk about their experiences working with the director, who’s also the subject of the documentary "Titón: From Havana to Guantanamera," directed by his widow, Mirtha Ibarra. An accompanying booklet contains an essay by historian Joshua Jelly-Schapiro that positions the film as the culmination of the ICAIC’s efforts to produce post-revolutionary national cinema and a subversion of its limited social-realist schema.
Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s complex, daring rumination on the Cuban revolution is one of the finest films about living within a revolutionary realm.