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Neither For the Revolution Nor Against It? The Subtle Radicalism of ‘Memories of Underdevelopment’

Memorias del subdesarrollo (Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, 1968)

Cuban cinema is worth going back to again and again if only to disperse a widespread polarization of political cinema depending on production context. Leftist cinema is often divided between healthy or ‘good’—i.e. oppositional, independent, low-budget—and ‘bad’—i.e. state-sponsored, propaganda-driven, enforcing the authorities’ legitimacy on the masses. Post-revolutionary Cuban cinema is a bit of both categories: produced by a new regime with the directly stated intent of shaping viewers’ political outlook, but formally daring regardless. Filmmakers had total freedom for aesthetic exploration and, short of completely dismissing the Revolution, green light for satire and social criticism. Some of these films wonderfully merge Second Cinema conventions (European-arthouse-influenced cinematic style) and Third Cinema militancy, less preoccupied with prescribing what cinema is inherently or ought to be, and more preoccupied with seeing what they can do creatively with spectators’ reflexes.

Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s works offer ample evidence of the freedom offered by the Fidel Castro regime to filmmakers. In the ‘60s, under the protection of ICAICInstituto Cubano del Arte e Industria Cinematográficos  (the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry), he set out to redefine the ways in which films engage spectators and—ideally—extend their grasp on them even after leaving the cinema. His 1968 Memories of Underdevelopment/Memorias del subdesarrollo is a formally rich essay film with a still resonant narrative thread which charts the post-revolutionary impasse of its middle-class Cuban protagonist. Alea mixes fiction with incorporated newsreels, TV programs, fragments of documentary and an essayistic passage about the current state of Cuba, proving much more playful and creative with cinematic form than many arthouse directors working in the ‘60s around the world.

Third Cinema: Political Reboot

First of all, a reminder that no film—not even a Cuban one—is an island: In his 1997 essay ‘The changing geography of Third Cinema’, Michael Chanan carefully chronicles the quest for a Third Cinema (whether or not it had been called that way) at the end of the ‘60s. Pointing out that the concept of “third world” had only been invented in 1955, he pinpoints the geopolitical factors that had stimulated the Argentine ‘Towards a Third Cinema’ manifesto that spelled out the political ambitions of Latin American Cinema: “[T]he term corresponds to what Solanas and Getino referred to as ‘a new historical situation’: ‘ten years of the Cuban Revolution, the Vietnamese struggle, and the development of a world-wide liberation movement whose moving force is to be found in the third world countries’.”Michael Chanan, ‘The changing geography of Third Cinema’, Screen 38:4, Winter 1997, p. 374 In other words, cinema was to give the final impulse in an already existent social movement. Chanan analyzes the features of Solanas & Getino’s proposed mode of cinema, which they had already practiced in a triptych of feature documentaries collectively titled The Hour of the Furnaces/La hora de los hornos (1968): “The openness of the film lies elsewhere [than in the polysemy of ‘second cinema’]: in the political relationship between the film and the viewer—at least, in the clandestine circumstances in which the film was necessarily viewed in Argentina itself in the years before 1973.”Ibid., 373 In other words, a work that is “stridently univocal” from a political standpoint finds a way to aesthetically negotiate its relationship with the spectator.

Making Sense of History

Memories of Underdevelopment has a world-weary protagonist with artistic ambition, the likes of which you might’ve seen in films by Michelangelo Antonioni or Louis Malle, but his attitude is ultimately diagnosable as something else than the human condition. Sergio, an aspiring writer who starts off his career with an insurmountable writer’s block, has the pretension of being clear-sighted but falls short of understanding his own self-righteous elitism, thus setting up for spectators an interplay of narrative closeness and satirical distance. While the protagonists of subversive filmmaking are usually opaque—with Jean-Luc Godard’s characters often at the extreme of being complete cyphers—the construction of Sergio’s protagonist does invite empathy, if not full identification, or at least the forming of a three-dimensional psychology. In the midst of the social confusion depicted in Memorias…, this character—however flawed—who is trying to come to grips with the world around him has the merit of guiding the spectator by the hand through the work of art; in this, at least, he has a certain magnetism.

Alea’s work is not straightforwardly didactic in exposing Sergio’s remnants of comfortable bourgeois thinking—instead, it uses subtle techniques like placing the almost-contemporary plot a few years into the past, leaving the fictional hero to trip over a historical situation that appears clearer, to spectators, with a few years’ hindsight.

The events in Memorias…  are set temporally in 1961-1962, between the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis, thus making this 1968 film somewhat of a period piece. It also evokes a bifurcation for citizens of post-revolutionary Cuba, which was already firmly in the past seven years later: taking advantage of the temporary freedom of emigration, many of Sergio’s co-nationals are leaving the country, including his parents, Laura—the woman he had recently divorced—and a fairly close friend whom he nonetheless disdains for his bourgeois smugness. Sergio’s first redeeming trait is his determination to stay in his country, come what may.

Less redeeming is Sergio’s behavior in private matters, which he somehow conceives of as separate from his artistic, out-of-ordinary, transcendental side. His initial attraction to Laura—whom he later disdains for her ostensible aspiration to be a kept lady and have a carefree life—proves that he, in turn, has a socially encouraged preference for the cosmopolitan and the European, emphasizing that his personal preferences are never genuinely personal—something that is also reflected in his comments toward art. His former wife is enough of a specter to only be readable through Sergio’s depiction of her, but every iteration reveals far more about the teller.

Sergio’s newest conquest, the very young Elena, is facing proletarian uncertainties and prejudices, and she needs a man to provide for her and make her a respectable woman; however, she is never outspoken about this and Sergio conveniently assumes that she is spontaneously liberated with the advent of the Revolution. The paradox that he successfully uses an old-world kind of charm to seduce a new-world kind of woman never enters his mind, not even when Elena casually perceives that he is neither for the Revolution, nor against it.

Memorias del subdesarrollo (Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, 1968)

The Unreliable Narrator

Since Sergio’s behavior is often less than reputable and wise, his tendency to speculate or generalize on various social aspects is not particularly authoritative; it leaves the viewer in the position of somehow defining their own beliefs about the same topics. As with the unreliable narrator in literature, we are given hints to look beyond his depiction of the world, all the while judging him directly for this depiction. Whether agreeing or—more likely—disagreeing with him, there is no choice but to confront the issue in its conceptual form; the focus is shifted from the narrative to a quasi-documentary social commentary.

Beside keeping an eye on the rapid unfolding of history, Memories… maintains our detachment from the protagonist through film directing techniques. Occasionally, the same scene is reprised from a different perspective, or taken out of chronological sequence to convey an emotional point through juxtaposition. When Sergio bids farewell to his parents and Laura at the airport, we are first given a close-up on his face as they gesture their goodbyes; he seems not to be affected by their separation, although at this point it could also be an instance of opaque film acting, especially since the burden of the emotional interpretation is carried by the voice-over comments. However, the scene is repeated afterwards, only this time focusing on the faces of those who are leaving, and it is revealed that his parents and Laura are noticeably saddened by leaving him behind. In the light of their reaction, it rather seems that he is the one who is emotionally numb—a hypothesis which is confirmed by the first sentence of his diary that he later phrases on the typewriter. Similarly, an intense scene of Afro-Cuban music is shown repeatedly—at the beginning of the film, it seems a self-contained event in which a man is shot on the dance floor, but the party goes on; later, it is revealed that Sergio was present with a love interest/female employee while this was happening, although it does not seem to have affected them in any way. Perhaps most strikingly, a tape he recorded of an argument with Laura is played twice; in the first, he listens to it while he takes her clothes from the wardrobe and puts them on, then grotesquely pulls one of her stockings over his head and draws a female face on the mirror with her lipstick; later, after one of his encounters with Elena, the same argument is repeated, only this time with shots of Laura during the fight. Adding to her disgust—which is already obvious from the recording—she seems genuinely scared that he might hurt her; this is the one instance where he comes across as dangerous and toxic—beside, assumingly, being the class enemy—while otherwise he might have remained an innocuous aesthete in a country that does not rise up to his expectations, a lone victim of history.

Another masterfully directed passage is the sex scene with Elena, which is somewhat sensual, but rather chilling due to Elena’s instability and Sergio’s determination. While the narrative event is not at all likely to be read as rape even half a century laterWhile I would not point to one specific media outlet, one might recall the ongoing debate in January 2018 about Aziz Ansari’s degree of culpability over being perhaps too insistent on a bad date., there is something disturbing—which might be more obvious in our time—about Elena’s incongruously childish gestures and her several intermittent attempts to turn the man down. Although we are aligned with Sergio’s viewpoint throughout the film and limited by his peripheral vision, sometimes we are compelled to wonder what he is missing or purposefully ignoring, and this scene is a conspicuous example of Alea’s criticism of his character. As prescribed by modern cinematic narration, Elena never appears in any scene except in Sergio’s company—we aren’t given superior knowledge of her life arrangements or motivations—but at several points she might rather be the focus of viewers’ empathy.

Beyond the Four Walls

Even outside Sergio’s self-induced melodrama, the particular craft of Memories of Underdevelopment lies in the permeability of the protagonist’s subjectivity and the outside world. Several shots in the film depict the streets of Havana, aerial views, the passers-by—and yet, they are not uninflected images of the city. Firstly, they are occasionally commented on by Sergio in voice-over, which directs viewers’ interpretation of the urban landscape. Beside this, as Alea himself points out in a later essay on the film, they were not meant to primarily have documentary value, but often to blend in with Sergio’s outlook at a certain point.

The same holds true for the TV segments that are shown throughout the film—they run long enough to identify the topic, but in the overall economy they show Sergio’s limited attention span (at least until closer to the end of the film) to broader historical events. Whether he is watching a news clip about Guantanamo or a segment of a documentary (specifically, Santiago Álvarez’s Now!), his mind seems to wander elsewhere. In the latter case, this provides an explicit contrast: violent images of African-American suffering are broadcast on-screen, but Sergio’s reason for terror is the fact that Elena is knocking on his door—and he had just decided to leave her for not being sophisticated enough.

There is one segment of Memorias… which is vaguely similar in form to La hora de los hornos, in the sense that a philosophical text overlaps with found footage that it obliquely explains. After wandering through a bookstore, Sergio picks up a copy of the Argentine León Rozitchner’s Moral burguesa y revolución/Bourgeois Morals and Revolution, a volume with a strikingly appropriate title to the rest of the film, which might explain why Alea indulged in a slight anachronism to include it, as the book was in fact published in 1963. The cinematic effect of this sequence, to somebody who had followed the film with emotional investment, should be a disconcerting one: the voice of Sergio, whose musings have thus far been about his personal life and his failure to accomplish his artistic potential, suddenly sounds flat and authoritative and, in rhetoric, adopts the radical leftists’ comparisons; the passage he reads from Rozitchner explains war crimes in terms of division of labor, which spares the conscience of those directly and indirectly involved in the crimes.

There is certainly some degree of revolutionary fervor mixed in with Sergio’s personal tumult, and his immersion in the text makes him fleetingly militant, but he is erratic at best. He bemoans the loss of a department store (though one which had been symbolically destroyed). He despises the mercantile Weltanschauung and thoughtlessness of his family and best friend, but at the same time he fully benefits from having the same privileges. The root of his pain is rather existentialist than Marxist.

An Ideological Roundtable in Classic Narrative Form

Despite occasional digressions into the essay film, Memorias… usually achieves reflexivity in straightforward, classic cinematic narration. Alea appears in a cameo as Sergio’s director-friend who aids his seduction of Elena by auditioning the wannabe-actress teen (she turns out to be untalented and the audition has no follow-up, but given the heroic declared role of ICAIC, even this favor among buddies might have been scandalous to censors with a lesser sense of irony). At the midpoint of the film, Sergio attends a roundtable in which a group of authors from different countries debate (assumingly with their audience) the current state of Cuba, and the scene serves more to underline elitist pretension than to give a briefing of the true way forward. However, one intervention—by Italian poet Gianni Toti, playing himself—is particularly refractive of Sergio’s habits of thought: Toti draws attention to “underdevelopment” as a buzzword with an imperialist subtext, as if the only thing for a country to do would be to emulate and catch up with North America. Another guest of the roundtable is Edmundo Desnoes himself—the author of the novel Alea turned into the film we’re seeing—showing up only to be derided by the character that he, himself had created. This adds to the polyphony of ideological views on the contemporary society within the film, with every one of them commenting on another, and the open possibility that those opinions which were expressed are not necessarily worthier than those held silent. This, in turn, rhymes with Alea’s theoretical pursuit of a film form that would motivate spectators to think for themselves, and to this purpose not necessarily distinguishing between Second Cinema and Third Cinema, but dismissing passivity and bringing political matters—in explicit terms—to the fore.

While being as direct and as much of an intellectual provocation as the toughest political films, Memorias… is neither unpalatable nor unsubtle. It is likely that some of its political allusions are more obvious today, when modernist tactics have been in the mainstream for several decades and spectators are more accustomed to them. (In the early seventies, while it played overseas, it was written up as an unambiguous Second Cinema film, but that’s another story.) Overall, we engage in different ways with it than its contemporaries—for example, a few decades of postcolonial discourse later, Pablo’s enthusiasm for everything coming from the USA is obviously satirical. Two waves of feminism later, Sergio’s treatment of women exudes crassness in more obvious ways than in an era when gender roles were undergoing changes. All things considered, over half a century later, Memorias… doesn’t look its age: especially because its formal mastery lies in adhering to the moral principles rather than the enforced realities of the Cuban Revolution, long after the dust settled it did not diminish into either outdated satire or didactic obviousness.