The writer wanders the seaside of a great island lost in his own thoughts, lovesick and grappling with a changing world. Such is the enduring image of Tomas Gutierrez Alea’s masterpiece Memories of Underdevelopment, which remains the greatest jewel of Cuban cinema. First released in that fevered year of 1968 to worldwide acclaim, it remained largely unavailable in the United States for decades, eternally referenced in film scholarship yet not easy to actually view. Now thanks to the Criterion Collection, it has returned to us, beautifully remastered and stunningly relevant. Made when the Cuban Revolution was merely a decade old and still enflaming passions in the hemisphere, it now speaks to us in a restless yet post-revolutionary moment, when its audience sees it from a the vantage point of dashed dreams and uncertain hopes. When Alea first made this movie his protagonist was an intellectual questioning himself within a society determined to inaugurate a Marxist future, today he would feel at home in a world where nobody can say what is coming.
This year marks 60 years since the Cuban Revolution overturned politics all over the Americas. It is almost a cruel twist of fate that just now when Cuba reaches this milestone and slowly opens herself to a gradual return of capitalism, Venezuela threatens to plunge South America into war. The Venezuelan situation can be interpreted beyond its immediate political significance as a metaphor for broken dreams. In the post-Cold War haze of the late 1990s and early 2000s, there seemed to be a hope in the government of Hugo Chavez that radical alternatives were indeed possible, that the concept of popular power had not dissipated. Cancer would end Chavez’s life and the ensuing regime would prove incompetent and mired in various corruptions. But ideas are more dangerous than people, and so now the United States, with all of its might, sees a perfect door for finally doing away with the “Bolivarian Revolution.” Venezuela poses many of the same dilemmas to intellectuals that Cuba posed for decades, namely how to position oneself when the revolution has devoured its own, yet reactionaries prepare to go in for the kill. The artist in particular suffers, because art is by nature free and revolutionary, but is immediately targeted by the state when it feels under siege. The great Mexican journalist Alma Guillermoprieto in her beautiful memoir Dancing with Cuba, remembers pouring over Havana publications of intellectuals wrapping themselves in labyrinthine arguments. “Rereading the debate with which I punished myself so long ago,” writes Guillermoprieto, “I think that a desperate offer can also be read between the lines of this piteous text: ‘I’ll diligently apply the whip to myself,’ the speakers are saying to the power that they support, ‘if you’ll acknowledge some value to my existence or, at least, allow me to go on existing.’” This text captures quite well what Alea’s film is partially about.
In Memories of Underdevelopment, the island is still reeling from the failed 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, when the Kennedy White House mistakenly thought overthrowing Fidel Castro would be easy. The system remains partially open even as it slowly militarizes. Sergio (Sergio Corrieri) is a writer and middle class intellectual, who wanders Havana cafes and bookshops (where Nabokov’s Lolita is still available). He is haunted by the departure of his wife, a beautiful blonde who decided to seek the American dream in Miami, which for now is mainly the destination for the fleeing upper classes. It was the Bay of Pigs which finally inspired Castro to openly declare the Revolution as socialist. In taped recordings we can hear Sergio’s former beloved tear him apart as too sweaty and needy, while openly hating everything about the island and where they live. It is a metaphor for the bourgeois suddenly finding their homeland to be alien, once it has been taken over by different forces. Sergio’s friends seem to be planning to leave as well, they too hail from the island’s middle class, who don’t feel such an allegiance to egalitarian principles. But while Sergio doesn’t want to leave his country, he also begins to conflict with his own social prejudices. It seems romantic solace can be found in the arms of Elena (Daisy Granados), a brown-skinned beauty from the working class. But she doesn’t care for reading and finds intellectual chatter to be a bore. When they tour Hemingway’s house she could care less about its significance. Sergio decides to end it, yet this creates even more troubles. Meanwhile the Cuban Missile Crisis is brewing, and there are more militias and troops on the streets.
Alea based this masterpiece of world cinema on the novel Inconsolable Memories, by Edmundo Desnoes. 50 years later and the film’s technique remains rich and exhilarating. The editing and visual style have a kinship with the French New Wave, especially in the way Alea uses jump cuts and inserts to evoke the chaos of Sergio’s marriage and inner self. There are moments of dreamlike power, including a scene where Sergio fantasizes about a woman being baptized by Protestants. The protagonist is a wanderer amid a city full of both life and immense uncertainty. His tape recordings are the physical and audio manifestation of terrible memories, but he is not disconnected from the outside world. On the contrary, it is precisely the history in which Cuba has been swept that is affecting daily life. Sergio attends a meeting of intellectuals, where even an American stands up to comment in English. These are the years before real scarcity, when the U.S. blockade was in its early stages. We don’t see a Havana in need of repair or a lack of goods (although today Cuba’s health and nutrition levels remain impressive for a third world country). What Alea does capture well are the emerging social divisions of the time. In 1968 this film could have easily been seen by authorities as a worthy critique of the snobbish elite, who can’t adapt to the Revolution because of their comforts. But the script is much more subtle and sober. In a later scene government officials visit Sergio and notice his apartment is quite large, too large for a single man. He expresses little interest in leaving Cuba, and might even be a patriot, but he won’t be too happy having his home cut down. But is it worth it for the socialist cause?
That it was made early in the Castro years is an impressive feat. First released in 1968, by the time of the film’s release Cuba had a divided literary community. Masters of prose like Guillermo Cabrera Infante had left for Europe, others like Jose Lezama Lima stayed behind, even as their great works like Paradiso received limited circulation. Some like Reinaldo Arenas would face prison and censorship before making it to the United States, only meet a bitter fate. As Cuban literature faced challenges, Cuban cinema flourished into a wonder of third world art. Like Iranian cinema today, Cuban filmmakers made masterworks both intimate and grand, like Humberto Solas’s Lucia, which charts the island’s history from the 1800s to the 1960s. Soviet director Mikhail Kalatozov would be commissioned to make I Am Cuba in 1964, one of the most visually stunning of all films. Because the Cuban Revolution combined Marxism with Latin American struggles dating back to the Spanish conquest, there was always a more transcendental spirit to its appeal. Castro and Che Guevara would evoke Simon Bolivar and Jose Marti as much as Lenin, so the romantic appeal of Cuba would remain for many well into the “Pink Tide” years in the 2000s, when Latin America for a time elected many leftists to power. This after the Soviet Union had bitten the dust.
It might be more fitting for Memories of Underdevelopment to return to us now, when romanticism has given way to cynicism and ideological limbo. Alea peppers the narrative with references to poverty in the world, the old U.S.-backed regime and its decadence, but isn’t making a propaganda piece. The word “underdevelopment” also relates to Sergio’s observations of the people around him. He bemoans the fact that Elena is simple and can’t make immediate connections between thoughts, ideas and life issues. He criticizes the Cuban people as being “inconsistent.” When he looks through a telescope at a destroyed American monument, he speaks of a free and independent Cuba, but his voice betrays that he himself feels unfree in his own life. His parents have left as well. Should he? In a sense Elena poses another question as well. Is Sergio being unfair in his judgements towards her, in essence being anti-revolutionary by not loving a working class girl when they have nothing in common? Even in revolutionary times, when you’re incompatible with a lover there is little that can change that. Alea is using individuals as striking metaphors for the questions raised by national and social upheaval.
The Venezuelan crisis, set now in a world where conflicts are returning to a state of simply the great powers in opposition (there is no capitalist versus communist divide), forces intellectuals to become Sergios in a sense. We can admit that the revolution has faltered, or even died, but do we then blindly support a cynical U.S. intervention in the region with its potential and terrible human cost? The revolution begins to hound Sergio near the end, and he obviously cannot marry Elena, who goes so far as to falsely accuse him of taking advantage of her. Alea would return in later years to an even more delicate issue within the Cuban Revolution with 1993’s Strawberry and Chocolate, which deals with gay life at a time when homosexuality was still frowned upon by authorities. Like many great filmmakers working within a specific moment in history, where various social and ideological forces are in conflict, Alea makes critiques that are timeless. Yet like Sergio, we debate with ourselves as history marches forward. The final moments of the film could be a metaphor for us all today. On a television set Castro, the maximum leader, makes a speech urging revolutionary, fatalist unity in the face of the Missile Crisis. Outside Sergio’s window weapons of war are being hauled up buildings and Havana’s sea walls take on the specter of barricades. As the writer struggles with love sickness and his relation to the world, the powers that be march towards potential cataclysm. Few films have captured such a moment with this kind of poetry.
Alci Rengifo is Cinematics Editor at Riot Material and a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. Mr. Rengifo frequently contributes to the Los Angeles Review of Books, Entertainment Voice, and the East LA monthly Brooklyn & Boyle.