'Memories of Underdevelopment': Film Review

Courtesy of Film Forum
A landmark Cuban film gets a deserved restoration and U.S. exposure.
1/12/2018

A member of Havana's elite copes with Castro's revolution in Tomas Gutierrez Alea's introspective drama.

2018 likely will see more than the usual number of 50th-anniversary remembrances, given the tumult of 1968 in America and elsewhere around the globe. For Cuba, this is the golden anniversary of one of the nation's best-regarded films, Tomas Gutierrez Alea's Memories of Underdevelopment. Released Stateside in a fresh 4K restoration, the daring blend of personal and political looks back at the birth of the U.S./Cuba rift, foreshadowing conflicts that remain relevant while standing alone as a distinctive work of art.

Based on a novel by Edmundo Desnoes, the film follows Sergio (Sergio Corrieri, I Am Cuba), a member of Havana's upper crust who remains in the city after his wife and relatives flee to Miami. In voiceover as his wife boards the airplane, Sergio seems to acknowledge that this is a de facto divorce: "She'll have to work" now, he concludes, until she can meet a man who will give her the level of pampering she's used to.

Throughout the film, we'll see reminders of Sergio's privilege, both economic — his apartment, full of art and expensive furniture, comes to feel like a bunker against the socialism rising outside — and intellectual. Sergio feels superior in just about every way: as a man approaching women on the street; as a thinker among the rabble; as a business and property owner whose wealth is envied. But as he sets out to write the novel he has so long contemplated, hints of self-awareness and regret creep in slowly. By the end of the film, he's describing himself as "more rotten than mature," "already an old man" at 38, a "monstrous" plant with big leaves that bears no fruit.

How Sergio gets from A to B is a complicated matter, lending itself to an array of political interpretations. Depending on one's position in history and on the political spectrum, the film seems to voice skepticism of both the Cuban Revolution and the consumer culture it opposes; it views the intellectuals seeking paths through this cultural minefield as do-nothings trying to make themselves feel important; it complains that the American most identified with the country, Ernest Hemingway, was a carpetbagger who "never cared about Cuba."

Stylistically, the film makes itself even harder to pin down. Gutierrez Alea blends documentary and feature devices, steals street scenes that put fictional characters in real situations, and offers New Wave-influenced insights into a man who resents what's around him but can't bring himself to leave it.

The picture's most accessible storyline is a fairly ugly affair between Sergio and the young woman, Elena (Daisy Granados), he picks up on the street. Convincing her to spend time with him by promising to introduce the aspiring actress to a producer he knows, Sergio gets her up to his apartment, where a dated game of cat-and-mouse unfolds. Elena refuses his physical advances but coyly allows him to proceed; after they sleep together, she cries and says, "You've ruined me. … What will I tell my mother?" Still, Elena wants to become Sergio's girlfriend — and only after he begins to hide from her does she go to her family, who bring him to court as a rapist.

Contemporary audiences may have plenty to say about that, but in Memories, this episode is just fodder for further introspection by a man who deserves our interest more than our sympathy. Young moviegoers who think of Cuba as a backwater time capsule, cut off from the world, will find Memories a useful, sometimes entrancing place to begin correcting that impression.

Production companies: Cuban State Film, Instituto Cubano del Arte e Industrias Cinematograficos

Distributor: Janus Films
Cast: Sergio Corrieri, Daisy Granados, Eslinda Nunez, Omar Valdes, Rene de la Cruz
Director: Tomas Gutierrez Alea
Screenwriters: Tomas Gutierrez Alea, Edmundo Desnoes
Producer: Miguel Mendoza
Director of photography: Ramon F. Suarez
Production designer: Julio Matilla
Costume designer: Elba Perez
Editor: Nelson Rodriguez
Composer: Leo Brouwer

In Spanish and English
98 minutes