The film emphasises the empty existence and contraditions inherent to a wealthy Cuban to symbolise the changes produced following the revolution.
In 1967, after the release of his satirical account of Cuban bureaucracy The Death of a Bureaucrat, filmmaker Tomás Gutiérrez Alea showed his audacity by choosing to focus his next film on a leftover bourgeois in post-revolutionary Cuban society. Memories of Underdevelopment (Memorias de Subdesarrollo) is set in the aftermath of the failed Bay of Pigs invasion: Sergio, a wannabe Parisian idler, rather than join his family in their exile to Miami, attempts to maintain his aimless bourgeois existence in a new society in which his privileged stupor is increasingly out of place.
Sergio doesn’t particularly loathe the revolution but is not entirely comfortable with it either. He negates ideological thought, he never takes sides. The audience is mystified by this apolitical bourgeois whose only interest is a fetishised European ideal of culture and art. He takes his young lover, Elena, to a modern art exhibition but is disappointed by her lack of interest. Instead of focusing on the paintings, Elena is more interested in taking care of his loose tie. He then takes her to Ernest Hemmingway’s house, ten miles east of Havana, in another attempt to show her what culture and ‘real’ art are. When she does not conform to his scholarly ideals, he abandons her, remaining silent before leaving as she calls out his name.
Interestingly, it is in Hemmingway’s house that Sergio reaches a somewhat critical reflection on a cultural figure he idealises: he claims that Hemmingway never seemed to care for Cuba, that he only used the land for sport and late-life whims. What he doesn’t understand is that, as with Hemmingway, Cuba is of no interest to him either. Sergio’s only goal in life is to stroll around pretending to be Cuba’s answer to the Italian star Marcello Mastroianni. He swims in his own proud but confused thoughts, translated to us in a voiceover narration, in which he expresses harsh criticisms of the Cuban people he regards as ‘underdeveloped’. Above all, Memories of Underdevelopment is a character study of someone at the crossroads between two worlds – and at a complete ideological loss.
The film is well-known for its cinematic innovations, at times hinting at the French New Wave, at other times pointing at neorealism. With Godardian style editing – characterised by splicing different pieces of film together – Alea and editor Nelson Rodríguez showcase a playful and original language. Mixing documentary archive footage with fictional narrative, the film becomes a sort of collage, punctuated by surreal jump-cuts into Sergio’s fantasy world, as well as inventive point-of-view shots. In a later scene, a restless Sergio paces around his apartment. These shots of Sergio are intercut with fragments of archival footage depicting the mobilisation of military tanks. As he paces back and forth, intimidating shots of soldiers and their tanks interrupt, before Sergio throws himself on his bed. For the viewer, this editing technique has a disorientating effect that mirrors Sergio’s own mental chaos and intensifies the drama of his situation.
Over this dynamic film, Alea elaborates a clever and subtle commentary on a political remnant through the perspective of the remnant himself, whose patronising voiceover is delivered ironically. Despite his contempt for Cuba and its people, Sergio is unable to sustain his state of denial and gradually realises that, after all, this underdevelopment is relevant only to himself.
Memories of Underdevelopment (Memorias de Subdesarrollo: directed by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, Cuba 1968)
Fidel Castro ‘Dignidad’ Speech (extract from film)