Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s Memories of Underdevelopment was released fifty years ago this month. For much of that time it has not been easy to see, but it was recently restored by Cineteca di Bologna at L’Immagine Ritrovata laboratory as part of The Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project, and The Criterion Collection is releasing it on home video this week. I’ve heard about the film often over the years, and I’m excited that it’s readily available now. It’s an impressive film made in the early days following the Cuban revolution, a film that managed to reflect various points of view from all sides of the revolution, both those who had left Cuba and were against Castro and also the Cuban government itself, which allowed it to be displayed in Cuba, where it could easily have been censored out of existence. What we get is a complex exploration of an explosive time and place.
The film begins shortly after the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion, which, contrary to its goal, strengthened Castro’s position in Cuba as well as Cuba’s relationship with the Soviet Union. In the wake of that event, many Cubans left the island, including the family and friends of Sergio, the central character of Memories of Underdevelopment. Sergio (played by Sergio Corrieri, who also starred in Mikhail Kalatozov’s I Am Cuba from a few years prior), though, decides to remain behind, allowing that his wife will have to find another husband in America so she can continue to enjoy the quality of life he offered her.
Sergio is our central character as well as our narrator. He’s a not-particularly-likeable intellectual who has stayed behind in a country he clearly has no love for, even seeing it as beneath him, commenting often on its underdevelopment. Why has he stayed behind, then? Ostensibly, to examine revolutionary Cuba from within. He sees himself as the dispassionate observer.
There’s a bit of prideful self-denial here: as an elite, Europhile intellectual, he will condescend to watch this particular ant hill.
But that’s not the only reason he’s stayed behind:
With or without a wife in the country, Sergio seduces women. He wants them for purely selfish reasons: to examine, to find pleasure. In a way, he looks down on these women the same way he looks down on Cuba, yet he cannot leave them alone.
And yet Sergio himself is very alone, disconnected, alienated. He knows this. It frustrates him. It’s part of his ego. This is a fascinating look at one man’s relationship to the world around him, a world that is complicated and filled with blood and energy the man cannot comprehend.
Gutiérrez Alea’s film is not just about Sergio, though. He’s part of a larger picture. Throughout Memories of Underdevelopment, Gutiérrez Alea slides in real footage from the time, presenting the world from multiple perspectives. You have to wonder just how this man sits idly by and watches it all for his own amusement.
Over the past several months, it seems The Criterion Collection has been releasing one socially important and historically conscious film after another. I’ve posted recently on The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez, El Sur, and Manilla in the Claws of Light. Each has been a compelling film in isolation but also an important film in the context of history and in the context of what’s going on in the news today. Memories of Underdevelopment definitely sits on the same tier as (maybe higher than, even) all of them.