Memories of Underdevelopment

09/19/2010

Cuba / 1968 / Spanish

Directed by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea

With Sergio Corrieri, Daisy Granados, Omar Valdés

Still from 'Memories of Underdevelopment'Sergio, the protagonist of Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s Memories of Underdevelopment, is a study in living obsolescence. He is a bourgeoisie in a society where they are no longer meant to exist, a landlord without land, and a pundit with no one to listen to his terse commentary – in other words, an accumulation of ineffectual affectations and empty attachments. He keeps his head down in the presence of the authorities and harbors a certain fascination with the proletariat, if only a bleak fixation on their basic hopelessness. His wife and parents having repatriated to America, followed soon after by his friend Pablo, Sergio wanders alone, an alien in Havana, the city where he lives. From his tropical bachelor pad apartment he watches life as it progresses far below him, all the while thinking that, in the time between the revolution of 1959 and the present day (1962, immediately following the Bay of Pigs Invasion) it has become gouged of its essential pith, and all that once made it stimulating. Or is it that the lifestyle he loves, bereft of values and convictions, is now pallidly exposed and, like Pablo’s flashy, American-made car, impossible to maintain under the new system?

Throughout the film Sergio proves himself a thoughtful critic of the somewhat stunned political debates he listens to, the insignificance of Cuba’s great social critics, and even the futility of his own paunchy existence. But in spite of this reflectivity there is no coherence to his world, no ideas to connect him to the activity and life of his homeland. His wife is long gone, busy forgetting about him, but her personal effects still fill the apartment, and he idly rifles through her clothes. They help activate memories, but not of her – just memories, such as the woman with whom he had his first relationship, or a childhood friend named Francisco, or the prostitutes he has visited since his teens. He seems not to understand the objects that surround him or the things he likes. It is all shrouded in a dark covering of triviality.

Sergio has no job but he lives well off of back rent from former tenants of a house he owned prior to the revolution. He stalks the streets with quiet intensity looking for women, goes to bookshops, and laments the demise of his favorite nightclubs, those which made Havana “the Paris of the Caribbean,” and not “the Tegucigalpa of the Caribbean” as he now calls it. He finds a fashionable-looking girl of sixteen, named Elena, and pursues her for the day, accompanying her to an ICAIC studio, where they watch pieces of risqué films that have been cut on moral grounds. Later he brings Elena back to his apartment and gives her some of his wife’s dresses to try on. Coming from a working class family, she tensely resists his advances, but naturally gives in. When her angry family confronts him later for having sullied her reputation, he argues that women are liberated now, no longer bound by standards of chastity and family obligation. “You’re no revolutionary,” they spit at him, and they’re clearly right about that.

Still from 'Memories of Underdevelopment'Quietly he rails against what he sees as “underdevelopment” in the people of his country, an inability to engage with the what goes on around them beyond bland acquiescence, the seeming unwillingness to elevate oneself by transcending the immediate needs of the moment. And what of his wife, or of Pablo – the ones who ascended to the North? Perhaps they have overshot him, and perhaps they are too ambitious. He dismisses them as idiots, or even layers of himself that he is happier having shed. But to them, he must seem another example of that underdevelopment, an obdurate fragment of a decadent past.

There is a level of surveillance enacted on the protagonist, a type of seeing that almost reflects the way he sees himself; the light in his hallway darkens until he is a dim blot; he walks across an empty plaza and the camera zooms downward into his face to the point of obliteration. He sees the world either with bald lucidity or refracted in the distorted mirror of his own sophistry. There is something restless in the multitude of ways in which we view Sergio, those which Alea uses to evoke the paranoia of a very anxious time in Cuban history without looking at it directly, and while dwelling on its very converse: a way of life that is harmless and irrelevant and rather sad. It is as though he is holding up an artifact that he means only to throw away, but will nevertheless examine it for any residual meaning or value that it might, in a remote possibility, still possess.

The director whisks us through a taught collage of news footage acting as a brief exposé of the disgraced capitalist thugs who came to the nation’s attention as war criminals following the Cuban revolution. There is the priest, the philosopher, the torturer, the politician. Add  le flâneur to that lineup and Sergio could stand among them, although he hasn’t really hurt anyone. Even given his wealth and maturity, it is nonetheless a bit unbelievable that Elena would go home with him, so diffident and transparently wretched is his air. She does not see far beneath his shallow exterior but to the audience it is see-through and wanting of underlying substance. In his eyes she is a poor child, and he looks down on her while at the same time adopting the smooth manner of someone who wants to wring every possible use out of another.

Sergio’s most disconcerting quality is not merely that he is a creep, but that he is a creep with whom it is all to easy to identify. His languid cynicism, his vacuous pride and the blank, intellectual stupor in which he instinctively operates would all be recognizable to a certain extent in any contemporary society. In Cuba, at the time in which the film is set, such excesses as he simultaneously represents and makes light of probably seemed to have a true end point, a measurability born of the revolution. He bashes the past as much as he does socialism itself, two things of which he stands outside, but to which he is not a complete anathema. He is not entirely disabused of the merits of Bastista’s Havana – after all, it both created and tolerated people like him. For Alea it is too easy to write Sergio off as a twit, and he is too interested in what the character signifies of pre-Revolutionary society and the current one, calling into question the comprehensiveness of revolution if it still teems with vestiges of the previous regime’s venality.

Still from 'Memories of Underdevelopment'There is a scene at the beginning of the film that shows a crowded outdoor event at night, with musicians playing and young people dancing. The throng erupts into confusion, its tightly wound configuration breaking apart as the sound of a pistol rings out and a man collapses from gunshots. Later on Alea returns to this place but this time has Sergio in the middle of it all, as helpless and caught in the headlights as anyone else. He may loathe the ignorance he thinks surrounds him, but he is not above being victimized or even subsumed by it.

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