Reviews and notes
It seems as improbable that Tomas Gutierrez Alea's MEMORIES OF UNDERDEVELOPMENT
should have been approved for export by the Cuban authorities as that Bunuel should have made Viridiana
under Franco's nose. Both films in their different ways undermine, or significantly question, the cultural values of the country which sanctioned them.
A man, Sergio, and his country, Cuba, are at crisis-point. The search for new values, the re-orientation and positive reconstruction of Cuban society in 1962, have repercussions on the metaphysical quest of the individual. He cannot operate indefinitely in his apolitical vacuum yet he cannot embrace the naive, simplistic fervour of the Revolution. By a historical accident he is a peripheral adjunct of the great Communist society: he has rejected his bourgeois formation yet his lucidity, scepticism and quirky humour lead him to reject also the over-facile, ready-made alternative - unquestioning acceptance of the Castro Revolution. Neither of these stereotypes provides him with an adequate solution.
According to Edmundo Desnoes, on whose book the film is based and who collaborated with Alea on the script, Sergio's 'irony, his intelligence, are a defensive mechanism which prevents him from being involved in reality....He does not assume his historical involvement,' i.e. in the creation of the post-revolutionary society. Yet Alea's direction evokes sympathy not condemnation for Sergio's plight - superseded but miraculously not annihilated by the new order. (He even expects to continue living on his rents for a further dozen years or so.) Alea's implied criticism is presumably also directed against the new society, which with its inflexibility and failure to assimilate the deviant thinker is certainly no panacea for the intellectual and his existential problems.
When Sergio bids an unemotional farewell to his wife and friends at Havana airport in 1961, his feeling of relief in the face of this exodus of 'decadent, bourgeois imperialists' matches the mood of the nation. But this resemblance is only superficial. Sergio's motives are revealed immediately afterwards back in his apartment. As the camera pans round the room his voice on the soundtrack tells us that for years he has wanted to write a diary. His inner silence and solitude as he drinks his coffee and butters his bread in the kitchen are moments charged with incipient awareness of the isolation of his condition, breaking in upon him almost with the force of a rebirth. He muses ironically about change: both himself and Havana seem the same; it is not yet the millenium.
The 'Cuba libre e independiente' statue down by the harbour no longer has the imperial eagle but 'where is the dove that Picasso was going to send?' He plays a tape of a conversation with his wife, Laura. She finds him disgusting so he sneeringly remarks that it is because he has run out of Yardley's hair cream and Colgate toothpaste. Touches of voyeurism and fetishism are revealed plus a capacity for self-mockery, whimsy and sensuality. The opening section is completed by a series of close-ups of sad faces (joyless, post-revolutionary Cuba!) and then a freezing shot of Sergio which emphasises his isolation, poised Jason-like between the old and the new culture, accepting neither and wondering: 'What is the meaning of life for them and me - but I am not like them.'
By way of brilliant contrast the next section reveals that neither is he like Pablo, who epitomises the right-wing standpoint and whose dismissal of the new Cuba as inefficient seems vindicated when the garage mechanic, who has been asked to check the oil, says they haven't got any but he can always check it anyway. In the presence of Pablo guilt flits uneasily across Sergio's mind, like a series of Oxfam poster images, as he recalls that four children die of malnutrition every minute in Latin America.
A brief episode with Noemi, the girl who does Sergio's cleaning, enables him to indulge in erotic fantasies. Elena, the next girl he picks up and then tires of, can be seen as a microcosm of the new Cuba. Her ambition to be an actress is mocked, and actors are compared to scratched records as with superb comic verve short film clips are repeated in rapidly alternating forward and reverse motion. Sergio's contention that people always need someone to think for them is given point by a close-up of a poster of Castro and the Playa Giron. A shot of Pablo at the airport on crutches and behind glass emphasises Sergio's isolation and also reinforces his desire for lucidity - 'a disagreeable emptiness'.
Sergio is as alienated by Hemingway's escapism as by the writers' conference on 'Literature and Underdevelopment'. His memories come between him and action in the present. Tangled tree-roots, successive dissolves and slow pans of trees and foliage illustrate his half-remembered, peaceful idyll with Hanna, his first love, and the complex motivation whereby he let her go. Ominous hints of encroaching bureaucracy as his property is ponderously checked are followed in rapid succession by Sergio's despairing reflection - 'My life is like a sterile ornamental plant.' Then the farcical court case, in which Sergio's victory is marred by his world-weary comment that he is too educated to be innocent and his accusers are too ignorant to be guilty. With the missile crisis of October 1962, external, political pressures finally impinge on Sergio's situation; tanks and armed convoys urgently threaten his non-alignment and reveal the impossibility of the individual solution in a Communist society.
-Don Allen, Sight and Sound, Autumn 1969.
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