On 1 January 1959, Cuban president Fulgencio Batista fled the country, for all practical purposes ceding Cuba to the guerilla forces led by Fidel Castro. Castro took over a country mired in political corruption, under the intense influence of the mob, with many of its natural resources under the control of US business interests (roughly 75% of the arable land was owned by foreign entities). Shockingly, few Cubans had any formal education, the infrastructure (most importantly, the water supply) was insufficient, unemployment raged. Cuban society was deeply riven by racial segregation, women had relatively few rights guaranteed by law, and many Cubans were woefully lacking in housing and health care.
Castro immediately instituted a series of reforms to ameliorate Cuba’s woes, nationalizing land, shutting down mob casinos, and addressing women’s rights and racial inequality. He also summarily executed numerous followers of Batista without due process of law, confiscated private property of many of the wealthier Cuban citizens, expelled the Roman Catholic Church, established repressive measures to prevent the overthrow of his regime including the establishment of a spy network (the Informant Committees for the Defense of the Revolution), and inspired the flight of thousands of Cubans who felt they were disenfranchised or directly threatened by Castro’s policies.
Castro equally sought to strengthen the position of his revolutionary government among the people through cultural means and shortly after coming to power, his regime created the Dirección de Cultura del Ejército Rebelde (Culture Division of the Rebel Army). Under this penumbra was a film department that, by March of 1959, became the Instituto Cubano del Arte y la Industria Cinematogáficos (ICAIC—Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry). The Institute was established by a law (the first concerning culture passed by the revolutionary government) that declared that film was “the most powerful and provocative form of artistic expression, and the most direct and widespread vehicle for education and bringing ideas to the public.” This inaugurated roughly a decade of what was known as the Golden Age of Cuban Cinema.
The purpose of the ICAIC was to produce, distribute, and exhibit Cuban film as a means of educating a broad swath of the public; this was mass art, meant to be consumed not simply in public but as an act of political solidarity and development. The early films were mostly documentaries—two of the most important being Esta tierra nuestra (Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, 1959) and La vivienda (Julio García Espinosa, 1959) —chronicling the ambitions and achievements of the revolution. In this sense the ICAIC seems to be a vehicle for propaganda—a suspicion bolstered by Castro’s notorious declaration, in a 1961 proclamation of the role of creative expression in the new Cuba, “inside the revolution, everything; outside of it, nothing.” Indeed, many directors either underwent self-imposed exile, in the belief that their creativity would necessarily be censored in such a regime, or lost their positions in the ICAIC owing to the impact of various controversies.
And yet, Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s beguiling 1968 film Memorias del Subdesarrollo (Memories of Underdevelopment)—based on the eponymous novel by Edmundo Desnoes, who also wrote the screenplay—suggests that a knowing critical acumen did not have to be absent from films issued by the ICAIC. Rather, at its best and least restrictive, the ICAIC afforded artists the opportunity to create a new kind of critical cinema—one that openly disparaged neocolonialism and its capitalist substructures without idealizing the revolution, without losing sight of the inequalities that persisted, without gainsaying the very real suffering (warranted or unwarranted) experienced by those formerly in power when the Castro regime ostensibly took the part of the dispossessed. This was to be Cuba’s answer to the “Third Cinema”, the revolutionary cinema that sought to carve out a space distinct from both the “First Cinema” of the Hollywood model and the “Second Cinema” of the European art scene, driven by the figure of the auteur.
Instead, Gutiérrez Alea, highly critical of the very notion of the auteur, sought a collaborative model for his approach to film—a collaboration that not only involved a contingent of dedicated workers but also a mode of working across genre distinctions, across the divisions of high art and the popular, across the difference between the created and the found. Hence, Memorias del Subdesarrollo becomes a film short on narrative but rich in political, existential, and aesthetic themes; simple in the design of its plot but complex in its formal organization; a film that confronts the complexity of a political moment without attempting to reduce that complexity to a simple piece of propagandistic moralizing.
The political moment in which the film is set is the period between the Bay of Pigs invasion (April 1961) of Cuba by a US-backed group of Cuban exiles and the Cuban Missile Crisis (October 1962). Castro was still relatively new to power at this point, the country was greatly destabilized. The Bay of Pigs demonstrated just how vulnerable to attack Cuba still was while also clarifying the fact that US resentment was not dispelled by the mere imposition of its embargo on the island. A new exodus ensued; Cubans unsure of Castro’s ability to withstand the utter might of the US abandoned the country. At the same time, many who remained viewed Castro as a national hero: the bearded savior given to fiery bursts of rhetoric and willing to stand up to the capitalist juggernaut, the new colonial power. Che Guevara went so far as to send a letter of thanks to President Kennedy: “Thanks for Playa Girón [the Bay of Pigs]. Before the invasion, the revolution was weak. Now it’s stronger than ever.”
Although Castro had previously resisted labelling the Cuban revolution as “communist”, he now declared it to be “Marxist-Leninist” in nature and aligned himself increasingly with the Soviet Union. He soon struck a deal with Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev to move nuclear arms from the USSR to Cuba, within easy striking distance of the United States, sparking the Cuban Missile Crisis, which many viewed (and which many historians still view) as the nadir of the Cold War, the moment when the precarious balance of power in the world nearly collapsed in a paroxysm of destruction and global calamity. It’s nearly understatement to suggest that these were heady times in Cuban life. Cuban society careened between national pride and a newfound confidence on the one hand and existential terror and mortal fear on the other.
In the midst of this turmoil we follow the rather meager exploits of Sergio Carmona Mendoyo (Sergio Corrieri), a 38-year-old bourgeois pseudo-intellectual and aspiring writer, who had inherited the family furniture business and is now living off the rents he collects from his family’s various properties, including the apartment building in which he occupies the penthouse. The course of the narrative is simple enough. Sergio accompanies his parents and his estranged wife to the airport as they flee Cuba for Miami. He remains in Cuba, not really working, not really writing, just wandering about aimlessly. He indulges in memories of his various spats with his wife (one in particular, in which he tape records an argument without her knowledge, seems to particularly haunt him—perhaps because it so precisely involves the illicit documentation of private experience and turmoil), spies on neighbors with a telescope, assists his friend Pablo in his efforts to leave Cuba, fantasizes about his housekeeper (transforming in his imagination her baptism into a sensual moment of sexual bliss with himself in the role of the officiant), listlessly attends conferences on literature, and has an affair with a young aspiring actress named Elena (Daisy Granados). He brings the latter back to his apartment, allows her to try on and take away his wife’s clothes, and has sex with her. He soon tires of her immaturity, her lack of curiosity in intellectual pursuit, and he ditches her. Soon her family arrives and Elena informs him she is only 16 and that he has robbed her of her innocence and sues him.
The point of the film, clearly, is not the plot. Rather Memorias del Subdesarrollo is an assemblage of filmic material: some of it documentary in nature (much of this drawn from earlier films and stock footage), some of it in the normal register of a fiction film (with an actor on a set, acting from a script), some of it drawn from other motion pictures (one sequence in particular consists of a cutting together of clips from features that were considered too risqué by earlier Cuban censors), and some of it the result of simply following the main actor as he walks around Havana amidst non-actors (a striking moment of this occurs near the end of the film when the cab Sergio is stopped by a policeman—who looks directly into the camera lens with obvious curiosity as to why he is being filmed—and then proceeds to walk against the flow of a teeming crowd of Afro-Cubans). In this fashion the film is a study in cinematic technique that manages to give rise to a meditation on the effect of the revolution on someone who stalwartly refuses to take a stand on it.
Indeed, Sergio is the model of existential disaffection (discontentment as a mode of being). He never conceals his disdain for Cuba. The term “underdevelopment” is a watchword for him, cropping up repeatedly in both his voice-over narration and in his conversations with other characters. Yet he makes no move to leave Havana but rather resolutely remains in his interstitial and markedly temporary position. He’s still a capitalist in a society that prides itself on dismantling the inequities of capitalism; a bourgeois in a realm that celebrates the proletariat; an aesthete in a regime of pragmatism and political efficacy; a political agnostic in an age of commitment. He’s no political prisoner; he’s not one of the many members of the bourgeoisie openly punished by Castro’s government (at least not within the timeframe of the film—there’s some hint that his property will soon be confiscated). Neither exile nor revolutionary, Sergio acknowledges that all of his life he has been either too early or too late. This is the interstitial space that he haunts and that haunts him. He matured too late to have fully enjoyed the fruits of the decadence of the Batista era and too early not to have inherited the complacency and sense of entitlement of his class.
So, he moves around Havana like a specter of the immediate past, detached from his surroundings but with nowhere else to go. Alienated from the life he continues to live, seemingly out of mere habit, he’s an inhabitant too estranged from his country to belong, a tourist too familiar with his environment to experience the passing joy of surprise. Few characters in film lead such wan existences that do not derive from corporeal suffering. All of his physical needs are met, and yet he is entirely miserable—but worse than that, he exists in a kind of non-existence, a bland ever-sameness that brings nothing and takes nothing away, that drones on and on, signifying nothing. He is left with his meditations on the current state of affairs, his intellectual pursuits, and his sexual pursuits.
One of the most characteristic features of this film is Sergio’s various monologues on Cuba’s political situation, the current state of affairs. Often these monologues occur over documentary footage that has simply been folded into the film. One extended passage discusses several of the counter-revolutionaries who were caught, tried, and executed as a result of the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion. Sergio posits that these figures represent the hierarchical division of labor and social roles characteristic of capitalism: there’s the entrepreneur, the priest, the philosopher, the torturer, the functionary, and the politician. Each had his function but meaning was only provided by the group as a whole, the discipline inherent in their banding together, the vision of the future that informed their actions. And yet, when placed on trial, Sergio assures us, these figures failed to see how their individual responsibility intersected with the responsibility of the group, how their desires were imbricated with and informed by the desire of the whole. We hear their voices in archived interviews as they disavow personal responsibility for the crimes of which they are accused. Sergio contends that the counter-revolutionaries lacked a sufficiently dialectical understanding of the relationship between the individual and the group, the realization that a group only functions through the variegated and complexifying effects of individual choices and acts, and that an individual is only individuated through his participation in a group.
Sergio knows the right things to say; he understands the lineaments of analysis that suit the revolutionary regime but that understanding doesn’t seem to encourage him to take any critical stance upon his own life, his own mode of being. What is the source of his guilt, after all, if not the refusal to acknowledge his own dialectical relationship to his environment, his own role in the underdevelopment he decries, and the derivation of his alienation from his own unwillingness to participate in any manner in the social life that surrounds him? Gutiérrez Alea continually resorts to documentary footage (sometimes with Sergio’s commentary and sometimes without it—for instance, there’s an amusing sequence where we see a US soldier on the other side of a fence staving off a restricted area in Guantanamo Bay who hurtles rocks at the cameras run by Cubans). The film thus becomes disjointed and fragmented, unable to find the security of a consistent through-line, refusing its viewers the stability of a single register of communication. If meaning occurs in this film, it occurs in the interstices—technical and existential. As Sergio says at one point while flirtatiously teasing Elena, film is full of “the same gestures, the same words, the same gestures, the same words,” endlessly repeating. Meaning in the form of the unitary signifier is derailed by a musical meaning of rhythmic repetition, the particular subsiding into the alluring morass of a confused canvas of endlessly reiterated detail.
Sergio’s intellectual pursuits bring him no pleasure and yet he does not relinquish them. He looks down on those with fewer cultural attainments, with less aesthetic understanding, and yet he makes no efforts to expand upon his own or to use them to any effect. When he attends a conference entitled (not surprisingly) “Literature and Underdevelopment”, he is utterly bored. The panelists argue about the status of “underdevelopment” with respect to Latin literature and whether or not it’s a condition that must be confronted at the level of US-Latin American relations or at the level of the contradictions of late capitalism itself. One scholar makes a quasi-Nietzschean argument that the term itself is an instance of identification with a position of weakness, instead of focusing on the difference as such rather than as a comparison of relative prosperity. Meanwhile, Sergio lambastes, in his mind, Edmundo Desnoes (the author of the original novel and the screenplay) as he lights a cigar while listening to his colleagues. He only feels so important, Sergio maintains, because he’s in this context of underdevelopment, because Cuba is so relatively unimportant. Anywhere else, he would be a nobody.
The very next scene is one of the most striking of the film and serves as a climax for the second third of its running time. Sergio walks across a wide boulevard toward the camera, thinking about the conference he had just attended. He seems to have learned all the wrong lessons from the event. He still insists on the notion of “underdevelopment”, which he now claims becomes increasingly impossible to escape. “In underdevelopment there’s no continuity,” he muses, “Everything’s forgotten. People aren’t consistent. But you remember lots of things. You remember too much.” As he ruminates on these considerations the camera zooms in on his face, increasingly losing focus. Soon his visage is an abstract field of shade and light, indiscernible in its details, occluding any sense of identity. “You’re nothing. You’re dead,” he intones, “The final destruction begins now.” At this point, the entire screen is simply a fuzzy grey, a non-image, a cloudy screen of nothingness.
We witness the de-subjectification and then the de-objectification of Sergio. He laments that he has no place left to him but blames his circumstance not on his own choices but rather on the political, cultural, and economic “underdevelopment” of his surroundings. So we begin to see that “underdevelopment” for Sergio is not a signifier for fiscal and intellectual impoverishment as a relative lack. “Underdevelopment” is the diminishment or reversal of the trajectory of his privilege. The lack of consistency is not attributable to the scholars to whom he listened, nor even of the political circumstances in which he is immersed. His young lover Elena is immature and childish but she is consistently that way. The lack of consistency that he bewails derives from the fact that life no longer drops the benefits at his feet to which he has become accustomed. Not everything is forgotten; he just feels that he and his privilege have been passed over, neglected. As the washed-out image conveys, Sergio dissipates into the fog of the interstitial, of being neither here nor there, neither oppressor or oppressed. All that remains to him are his memories and they give him no respite.
Not surprisingly, Sergio seeks that respite in the pursuit of sexual pleasure. There’s a reason sexual indiscretion often accompanies mid-life crises. The hormonal craving for sexual release has subsided but that only invigorates one’s imagined connection between virility and the meaningfulness of life. Potency indicates potential (at least in one’s fantasies) and thus one fears that the waning of sexual prowess and desire (not necessarily connected, of course) signals the end of one’s ability to press into the future (potentiality): “You’re nothing. You’re dead.” Moreover, when political efficacy seems impossible to attain, one often seeks some manner of conquest and few things seem more direct, more immediate, than sexual attainment to a man who fears he has lost his power in the social world.
Hence the extravagant sensuality of his fantasy life, his imaginative reconfiguring of his housekeeper’s baptism into a vampiric wet dream, her thin robe made transparent by the water as she swoons in his arms; religious sacrament transformed into a debauched vision of sexual conquest. The manner in which he seduces Elena is equally pathetic. He tantalizes her with his connections to the director Gutiérrez Alea at the ICAIC (yet another way, along with the appearance of Desnoes, in which this film indulges in self-referentiality); he offers her the discarded wardrobe of his wife. He may not know just how young she is, but he recognizes that he’s taking advantage of a naïf. His hedonism brings him no real relief. Even his fantasy life and his sexual relationships (including those with his wife) are “underdeveloped”. They go nowhere, can proceed nowhere, are capable of no development, no eventuality. For all of his complaints about his country, Sergio himself is incapable of constructing anything, of leaving any positive mark upon the plane of the earth, of leaving any monument (however small, however insignificant to the world at large), any marker that he had ever existed. Sergio lives as a nullity and a nullity leaves no trace. The remnants of his sexual prowess are incapable of substituting for his utter inability to realize any manner of project; and if human beings are, as Martin Heidegger insists, creatures who project themselves into a future, who live today in an effort to erect something of significance tomorrow, then Sergio disqualifies himself as an adequate being altogether.
And yet, as disdainful as we might find ourselves in relation to Sergio, we can’t help but identify with him on some level. Very few among us are not, at times at least, haunted by memories that threaten to supplant our feeling of presence in an accepting world. Very few of us, in those dark moments of utter honesty, can say that we feel we have lived up to our potential. As our potency subsides, we all feel as though we have succumbed in some manner to underdevelopment. We could have and should have been so much more. The selfish part of us cries out that it’s the world that should have offered us so much more, that success accrues to the historically successful and that underdevelopment accrues for the ignored (shades of Malcolm Gladwell here, I suppose). Sergio feels dispossessed because the formerly dispossessed are in the ascendant (at least to his mind), leaving no position of privilege for him. At some point, we all come to haunt the interstices of our own lives, to reside somewhere between our successes and our failures, at a point where the distinction between the two no longer seems significant, a place where we are nothing, where we are existentially dead. “The final destruction begins now.”
Criterion Collection has recently released a truly beautiful restoration of Gutiérrez Alea’s most famous and probably most compelling film, Memorias del Subdesarrollo. The film was in a fairly wretched state of disrepair before the restoration, a good part of the negative was affected by advanced vinegar syndrome. The print here is simply stunning. The blu-ray edition includes several extras, including interviews with film critics, Daisy Granados, the film’s editor, the novelist Desnoes, and the director himself. Also included is a 2008 documentary on Gutiérrez Alea’s career, Titón: From Havana to “Guantanamera“. The extras are probably only interesting to true devotees of Gutiérrez Alea and his art but the film itself ought to be required viewing for anyone interested in Latin American cinema.