Memories of Underdevelopment is, internationally, one of the best known Cuban movies ever made. Filmed in Cuba and first released in 1968 the film was made and distributed under the auspices of the Cuban government film department ICAC (a department which is even mentioned in the story), and despite that is a surprisingly candid and critical look at life in Havana in the early part of the 1960s. As this period covered the Bay of Pigs fiasco and the Cuban missile crisis it is reasonable that a governmentally mandated production about people living in the captial city not being entirely happy might seem unexpected. It is presented here in an extensively and beautifully restored version, co-funded by the George Lucas Family Foundation and the Martin Scorsese chaired World Cinema Project, after the original was almost lost to “vinegarisation”.
Memories of Underdevelopment stars Sergio Corrieri as handsome and wealthy Havana resident Sergio. Sergio, the bored writer, ex-furniture shop owner, a man of means and a man with no purpose. Sergio has been abandoned by his family. His nearest and dearest, including his wife and parents have “escaped” from the country on the chartered flights which were at that time still flying out of the country to Miami, in an effort to escape the perceived threat of remaining in the country and possible American invasion. If he seems curiously unaffected at first by this abandonment, the rest of the film crystallizes his solitary nature by putting it in direct contrast with the characters he meets and the fleeting sexual relationships he takes part in. It is a film about alienation – set in the time when the country was about to undergo the experience of becoming alienated from the rest of the planet.
Sergio seeks to turn those near to him who are left into recreations of those who have abandoned the country. But this level of alienation, we learn, is nothing new for him – he was a man who distanced himself from others by money, stood spying on the outside world through a telescope and recording his argumentative conversations with his wife to play back and listen to later. Every aspect of his life seems carried out as an observer. It is when he meets the much younger Elena (Daisy Granados) that his life begins a new chapter. Through pursuing her he connects to her larger conservative family and becomes involved in scandal, while the oncoming storm of world events comes to a head. Has he corrupted her? Is he guilty of more than seeking a relationship? As an audience we are left to decipher the clues. And in doing so we are alienated by the presentation.
Director Tomás Gutiérrez Alea uses numerous documentary techniques in the telling of his narrative. Hand held camera, news footage and stills photography – common factors in French new wave cinema – combine to make this a curiously elegiac film for a tiny moment of time that was hardly known in the rest of the world. As such the film is a fascinating glimpse into the “reality” of life in Cuba only a few years after the revolution. The buildings, the styles, the wealthy bourgeois citizens still exist and the degree to which the movie can be considered propaganda by the Castro regime is intriguing. It is not uncritical; its presentation of the time is done in such a matter of fact way that that everything appears to be on screen. The military police on the streets, the communist banners and signs, Fidel Castro talking at length on TV, the ever present sense of threat – all of these things are shown.
Sergio Corrieri’s performance is very good – the scope of the story takes in memories from his past and he ages convincingly. At the time of making he was roughly ten years younger than the character he was depicting and this is something of which you would not be aware; his physicality is subtle but excellent. Other performances are good, particularly Daisy Granado, but the choice by the director and other performers to use a broad stroke of fiery Cuban temper to depict anger is a shame and comes across as a little stereotypically one note.
The film has become in itself an historical relic and this is the chief pleasure in watching it. The restoration is utterly superb – the picture on the Blu-Ray without fault. The only unfortunate thing is that as it is a story dealing with alienation, there is not a great deal to draw the audience in. It’s kind of the point of the movie that we are observers at a distance too. And as interesting and dark a character Sergio may be, the alienation leaves him broadly unknowable.
The historical significance of the film still makes it something worth seeing, but almost more as a documentary than a drama.
Memories of Underdevelopment is out now on Blu-Ray and if you’re interested in a different approach to the history of the early 1960s, is certainly worth a look.