Tomás Gutiérrez Alea – Memorias del subdesarrollo AKA Memories of Underdevelopment (1968)


Plot Synopsis
Sergio, a wealthy bourgeois aspiring writer, decides to stay in Cuba even though his wife and friends flee to Miami. Sergio looks back over the changes in Cuba, from the Castro Revolution to the missile crisis, the effect of living in an underdeveloped country, and his relations with his girlfriends Elena and Hanna. Memories of Underdevelopment is a complex character study of alienation during the turmoil of social changes. The film is told in a highly subjective point of view through a fragmented narrative that remembles the way memories function.

Review from Slant Magazine
Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s gutsy Memorias del Subdesarrollo (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 Castro’s revolution. Though Alea himself was devoted to the cause, his films forever scrutinized the self-devouring nature of Castro’s Cuba. (Alea died in 1996 shortly after the one-two success of the Oscar-nominated Strawberry and Chocolate and Guantanamera.) If Mikhail Kalatozov’s I Am Cuba championed the need for revolution in the country, Memories contemplates the failure of the new government to recognize and negotiate the lingering bourgeois threat left in the wake of Fulgencio Batista’s fall.

When his wife and parents leave for the United States shortly 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, he observes the threat of foreign invasion that haunts the hazy, not-so-distant horizon. Bored and unemployed (he owns the apartment building he lives in), 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.

Underdevelopment refers both to Cuba’s political stagnation and Sergio’s own sense of false enlightenment. The way Alea pieces together the film must count as its own act of political resistance: 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 are alive 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 he wouldn’t have to kill himself. One of Alea’s most jarring framing devices situates Elena as an exotic specimen (“a beautiful Cuban señorita”) trapped beneath the lens of American imperialism. Like Hemingway and Elena herself, it’s only a matter of time before Cuba itself would self-destruct.

The film is haunted by one particular image that appears early on: poet and revolutionary José Martí’s face withering to near obscurity on the wall of a building. Hiroshima Mon Amour is a major point of reference for Alea. In both Resnais’ Hiroshima and 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 wallow in the unfulfilled promise of its revolutionary consciousness.

Ed Gonzalez

Review from The Guardian by Derek Malcolm
Of all the dozens of films produced in Cuba through Castro’s insistence on the importance of the cinema, Memories of Underdevelopment is the most sophisticated. So much so, in fact, that those opposed to the revolution tend to call it a magnificent and unrepeatable fluke, produced as it was by a film institute that was virtually a Marxist ministry. Those in favour cherish it as a landmark that avoids almost all of the radical cliches.

The director was Tomas Gutierrez Alea, a middle-class university-educated Cuban who went along with the revolution despite some of the doubts about emerging bureaucratisation displayed by the equally bourgeois protagonist of his film. This is Sergio, a wealthy man who decides to stay behind when his family leaves for the US. The time is 1961 and the film is placed between the exodus after the disastrous Bays of Pigs invasion and the missile crisis of the following year.

The film centres on Sergio’s thoughts and experiences as he is confronted by the new reality. He is fundamentally an alienated outsider, scornful of his bourgeois family and friends but also of the naivety of those who believe that everything can suddenly be changed. He continues to live as a rent-collecting property owner and, in his private life, chases women with an almost neurotic fervour.

He is, in fact, the sort of man with whom we can easily identify from our experience of European films and literature. The difference is that he is placed in exceptional circumstances and finds it difficult to understand them. Memories is one of the best films ever made about the sceptical individual’s place in the march of history.

None of this would have been enough if Alea hadn’t constructed his film so richly, and in excitingly cinematic rather than literary terms. Documentary and semi-documentary footage is presented as Sergio would have seen it and the fictional story that goes along with it is very European in its narrative style.

There are even clips from a porno film – there were many made in Cuba under Batista – and Alea himself and the author of the original novel comment on what is going on in Sergio’s mind. As one admiring critic has said, “the film insists that what we see is a function of how we believe, and that how we believe is what our history has made of us”.

Memories was Alea’s fifth film, and probably his most famous, though at least three others received international attention. Death of a Bureaucrat was an ironic satire on the way revolutions stiffen into deadly bureaucracies; The Last Supper showed how the black slaves of Cuba in the plantation era were reconciled by religion to a life of bondage; and Strawberry and Chocolate was a brave and popular film that, despite Castro’s disdain for homosexuality, dared to have a stolid party cadre befriended and changed by a gay man.

Alea was clearly no ordinary product of the revolutionary cinema. He died recently of cancer and was honoured by a government he often seemed to criticise – and even more by ordinary Cubans, who flocked to his films.

Review from NY Times By VINCENT CANBY
The time is 1961, not long after the Bay of Pigs, and Sergio (Sergio Corrieri), the hero of Tomas Gutierrez Alea’s superb Cuban film, “Memories of Underdevelopment,” moves through Havana as if he were a scuba diver exploring the ruins of a civilization he abhorred but cannot bear to leave. The world he sees is startlingly clear. It is also remote. The sounds he hears are his own thoughts.

“Everything happens to me too early or too late,” says Sergio, an intellectual in his late 30’s whose critical faculties have effectively rendered him incapable of any action whatsoever. After his estranged wife and his mother and father have fled to Miami, with the other bourgeosie, he thinks he will write the novel he has always thought about, but then Sergio’s standards are too high to allow him to add to the sum total of civilization’s second-rateness. He finds himself blocked.

Perhaps if the revolution had happened earlier, he tells himself, he might have understood.

Sergio makes half-hearted little efforts to maintain his old ways. He picks up Elena (Daisy Granados), a pretty, bird-brained girl who wants to be an actress, and he tries to educate (he says “Europeanize” her. He takes her to art galleries and buys her books but her brain remains unreconstructed and birdlike. “She doesn’t relate things,” he tells himself. “It’s one of the signs of underdevelopment.”

He takes Elena on a sightseeing tour of Hemingway’s house. “He said he killed so as not to kill himself,” Sergio remembers, looking at some mounted antlers. “In the end he could not resist the temptation.”

Even suicide is beyond Sergio. All he can do is observe, much of the time through the telescope on the terrace of a penthouse apartment he must give up, sooner or later.

“Memories of Underdevelopment,” is a fascinating achievement. Here is a film about alienation that is wise, sad and often funny, and that never slips into the bored and boring attitudes that wreck Antonioni’s later films. Sergio is detached and wary, but around him is a hurricane of life.

Gutierrez Alea was 40 when he made “Memories” (in 1968), and he is clearly a man, like Sergio, whose sensibilities are European. Yet unlike Sergio, and unlike the director of “Eclipse” and “Red Desert,” he is so full of passion and political commitment that he has even been able to make an essentially pro-revolutionary film in which Castro’s revolution is observed through eyes dim with bafflement.

The result is hugely effective and moving, and it is complete in the way that very few movies ever are. I haven’t read Edmundo Desnoes’s original novel (published here in 1967 as “Inconsolable Memories”), but I like the fact that Desnoes apparently likes the film that, in his words, had to be “a betrayal” of the book to be a good film. Gutierrez Alea, says the author, in the film’s program notes, “objectivized a world that was shapeless in my mind and still abstract in the book. He added social density. . . .”

“Memories of Underdevelopment” was one of the films scheduled to be shown here last year at the aborted Cuban film Festival. It finally opened yesterday at the First Avenue Screening Room where it will play one week and then, I hope, it will move to another theater for the long run it deserves.

Review from Talking Pictures
If you are inclined to think that Third World Cinema is simplistic and one-dimensional, I invite you see Tomas Gutiérrez Alea’s Memories of Underdevelopment, selected by the New York Times in 1974 as one of the year’s ten best movies. Based on the novel Inconsolable Memories by Edmundo Desnoës, a Cuban writer who lived in the United States, Memories is a complex and probing film about the dilemma faced by intellectuals in Cuba following the revolution. Although directed by a Cuban who supported the revolution and remained in Cuba until his death, the film has a European sensibility, interlacing fiction and documentary footage and using poetic images, literary narration, flashbacks, and newsreel footage reminiscent of Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour.

Sergio (Sergio Corrieri) is a frustrated writer who chooses to remain in Cuba rather than follow his family to Miami just “to see how it all turns out”. Though he has strong feelings for his people, he is indifferent towards politics an observer rather than a participant. Alea shows the artist as anti-hero, a man who undergoes an identity crisis, is sapped of all his vitality, feels old in his thirties, and drifts along without meaning and purpose. Unable to write the novel he wants, Sergio survives on rental income from apartments and lives in middle class luxury while around him housing is deteriorating and there are serious gas and oil shortages. He spends his days smoking in bed, looking out of a telescope through his bedroom window, taking walks, watching television, and meeting young women. He makes no pretense of his being an outsider but complains that “everything happens to me too early or too late”. Hanna, the woman he says he truly loved urged him to move to New York with her and become a writer but he chose to remain in Cuba to go into the furniture business.

When Sergio makes the acquaintance of Elena (Daisy Granados), a sixteen- year-old girl who wants to be an actress, his life takes on new meaning but it is temporary and the affair ends badly. Persuading her that he knows important people in the theatrical world, he brings her to his apartment and they begin a relationship in which he tries to model her to fit his ideal of the bourgeois Cuban woman. He takes her to modern art galleries and the home of writer Ernest Hemingway to expose her to culture but it doesn’t work and he complains when she doesn’t fit into his mold. “She doesn’t relate to things,” he tells himself. “It’s one of the signs of underdevelopment.” Elena, like other Cuban women”, he says, has an “inability to relate to things, to accumulate experience, to develop”, but the stricture can just as easily refer to himself and he pays the price of this experience when the girl’s parents bring a lawsuit against him for rape. Although he escapes the fate of a criminal, little by little the outside world, the world of guns, slogans, and rallies closes in on him and he feels trapped.

There are several documentary sequences interspersed throughout the film that have no apparent connection to the narrative but convey the sense that no one living in revolutionary Cuba is able to escape the presence of history. The opening sequence shows a public dance in which all the participants are black with the exception of Sergio who is white. In this sequence continued later in the film, an unnamed political leader is assassinated. In other footage, we see excerpts from the trial of counterrevolutionaries captured at Playa Giron, the site of the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, and a third in which we hear the voices of Castro and Kennedy during the Cuban Missile crisis.

Though Alea apparently wants us to see the fate that befalls someone who does not directly endorse revolutionary activities, he makes his character so appealing and sympathetic that, to me, the film had mixed messages. I was torn between my support of the aims of the revolution and empathizing with Sergio’s disdain for the emptiness of both the Cuban bourgeois and the revolutionary leadership. An event that took place only three years after Memories of Underdevlopment was released, however, underscored the point that Sergio was making. At that time, Castro, at the First National Congress on Education and Culture, said that artists and writers must reject “all manifestations of a decadent culture, the fruit of societies that are rent by contradictions”. Not surprisingly, although due to receive a special prize for the film from the U.S. National Society of Film Critics in 1973, Gutiérrez Alea was denied a visa to attend the ceremony.

Special features
This rip cames with a Cine-magazine, something like a journal that are showed before the main movie in the cinemas. The cine-magazine was around 10 minutes with informations about the goverment and funny things. Tomás Gutiérrez Alea was the director of the magazine between 1956 and 1959, and directed himself some of them.

The Extra have only portuguese subs.

Subtitles:English, Portuguese and Spanish .idx

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