Other than Vietnam, Cuba may be the country most deeply affected by the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. Following a long, violent revolution in the 1950’s against Fulgencio Batista’s regime, the Communist regime governed by Fidel Castro would basically be a pawn in the nuclear brinksmanship between the two superpowers. There is clearly more than enough material in just these major historical events for dozens of features, which makes Memories of Underdevelopment’s choice of subject all the stranger.
Sergio (Sergio Corrieri) is a bourgeois writer living in relative comfort in the early ‘60s in Havana. He owns his own property and collects rent from his tenants. We spend a lot of time on him and his thoughts. An early scene shows him gazing at Havana from his metaphorical ivory tower, commenting on how the buildings look like cardboard. Even when the movie touches on events like the Cuban Missile Crisis, we get little beyond a few newspaper headlines for context.
If Sergio’s view of the world is decidedly out of touch, his views on women are definitely regressive. All of his relationships with women are filtered through his lust. A story he tells about how he started frequenting a brothel at a young age emphasizes the transactional nature he has with many women. Even with women that he doesn’t have a sexual relationship with, they are still subject to his fantasies. A story that his maid tells him about her baptism becomes a sexual daydream in which he connects her baptism to the birth of Venus as seen in the famous Botticelli painting. His way of viewing women reflects the way that the bourgeoisie view most people, as objects meant to serve a specific purpose and then be disposed of as soon as possible.
Memories does not comment on the political climate the way that a Western viewer might expect. Even though Sergio is a member of the bourgeoisie that would have been the target of the revolutionary government, we see trappings of his privilege protect him. Other than his wealth, his privilege shields him from imprisonment when he is accused of raping Elena (Daisy Granados), a minor. He is able to worm his way out of any serious punishment despite the furor that her family raises. As for the way the film depicts this sexual encounter, we see it the way that Sergio sees it – through a cruel and narcissistic lens. This injustice seems to clearly criticize Sergio’s character but we also see scenes of Castro himself giving his ultimatum to follow the ideals of his regime uncritically.
Perhaps this obliqueness is why this film is more popular abroad than in Cuba. In Cuba, Memories was seen as a portrait of someone with an outmoded way of thinking, someone who did not fit into the current revolutionary spirit. In the United States and other non-Communist countries however, audiences were more likely to recognize and appreciate the ambiguity of the narrative and tease its meaning. Director Tomas Gutierrez Alea has even said that non-Cuban audiences understood Memories better than Cuban audiences did.
Other than its complex political message, Memories offers a treasure trove for its viewers to admire. Author and screenwriter Edmundo Desnoes has said that Alea improved on his book. In fact, they would work together on the script, and Alea would ask Desnoes to write completely new scenes. The scenes were so good that Desnoes went back to his book, included them and republished it.
Though more properly identified as part of the Cine Libre movement, Memories also seems to have a lot in common visually with the early French New Wave films. Like Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless, Memories was shot on a low budget and included a lot of unplanned moments. One very metaphorical shot of Sergio walking through town and wading through an ongoing protest in the opposite direction of the crowd was a serendipitous coincidence. Another shot where the camera zooms in on Sergio from above, but, contrary to expectation, ends up on an out of focus close-up of his face would seem amateurish out of context, but it works to show the character’s alienation and lack of a strong identity.
Memories is a very specific, fragmented narrative that does not show a complete picture of Cuba during its time, and that is very much to the movie’s strength. No one film could hope to capture something as complex as an entire country’s political or spiritual climate. Seeing how the Cuban Revolution affected an individual who benefited most under the old system is much more effective than a simplistic, political screed. Alea would have a long, productive career and even make films more experimental and daring than Memories but Memories is rightly his most famous.