TOMÁS GUTIÉRREZ ALEA
Alea directed 13 feature films and 12 shorts in a career spanning nearly 50 years. After the Cuban Revolution in 1959, Alea joined other filmmakers to establish ICAIC (Instituto Cubana del Arte e Industria Cinematograficos), a collective dedicated to making films that aided the revolution. Internationally, his most well-known films are Death of a Bureaucrat (1966), Memories of Underdevelopment (1968), The Last Supper (1976) and Strawberry and Chocolate (1993).
Widely regarded as the greatest achievement in Cuban cinema and one of the best films of the 1960s, Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s tour de force is bookended by two prominent political events.
The first is the Bay of Pigs in 1961, when a CIA operation recruited more than 1,000 Cuban exiles to invade Cuba and overthrow Fidel Castro’s revolutionary government. It was a spectacular failure.
The second event – which ends the film – came a year later with the Cuban Missile Crisis when the island faced nuclear annihilation. A stand-off between the Soviet Union and the USA became the closest the world had come to a nuclear war.
The political trauma of these two events and the USA’s fear of a communist country in spitting distance from their mainland, meant Memories of Underdevelopment was delayed for release in the United States for nearly five years. J. Hoberman recalls it screened first in New York in 1972 as part of the Museum of Modern Art New Directors/New Films season, but “A month later, the print was seized by federal agents before it could be shown at a festival of new Cuban films…”
When it finally premiered in a commercial cinema in 1973, Memories of Underdevelopment astounded reviewers – “clearly a masterpiece” (Newsweek) “profound, noble…a miracle” (New York Times) “the most interesting and provocative film you will see all year.” (Village Voice).
Between the Bay of Pigs and the Missile Crisis, Memories of Underdevelopment follows Sergio (Sergio Courier, above), a wealthy, misanthropic, bourgeois intellectual who wants to be a writer and aspires to European sensibilities, but instead, is stranded on a tropical island, trying to adjust to his country’s two-year old Revolution.
He vacillates between admiring the Castro government for attacking the bourgeoisie, yet remains ambivalent over the new regime’s ability to solve economic and cultural underdevelopment.
We first see him at the José Martí airport, as his parents and his wife join the crowds headed into exile in Miami.
“She’ll have to go to work over there…until she finds some dumb guy who’ll marry her…I’m the one who’s really been stupid. Working so that she could live like someone who had been born in New York or Paris, and not in this underdeveloped island.”
It’s our first insight into this complex man, a privileged Cuban who once inherited a furniture factory and now lives off his proceeds as a landlord. Sergio has chosen to stay in his country and he returns to the airport once again to farewell his friend Pablo and Pablo’s wife (“this revolution is my revenge against the stupid Cuban bourgeoisie. Against idiots like Pablo”).
He watches Havana from his high-rise apartment, often through a telescope, seeing everything from above and at a distance, neither a revolutionary nor a counter-revolutionary, but paralyzed by the Revolution. He’s an existential witness to profound historical change in Cuba – so existential, in fact, that Penelope Gilliatt in The New Yorker mused: “Camus’s Stranger was engagé by comparison”.
Sergio ruminates over his wife, believing he transformed her from a “slovenly Cuban girl” into a European and now she has left him for the developed world. He also thinks of Hannah, a German girl he once loved and lost to New York City.
He has sexual fantasies about his housemaid Noemí, whose Baptist faith he finds oddly erotic; and has an affair with the 16-year-old Elena whom he tries to ‘develop’ by gifting her his wife’s clothes and taking her to museums.
Sergio’s story is interspersed with documentary footage of the ‘realities’ he fails to accept. They include the Bays of Pigs, Guantánamo and the Civil Rights marches in the USA. At a symposium on “Literature and Underdevelopment”, where Edmundo Desnoes, the writer of Memories of Underdevelopment and the book on which it is based Inconsolable Memories, talks of the way Latin Americans in the USA are given the status of African-Americans (while a black man serves drinks to him and the other symposium speakers).
It’s one of several reflexive moments in the film. Sergio, the fictional character Desnoes has created for the film we are now watching, is sitting in the audience of a real symposium listening to Desnoes speak. Sergio watches as he lights a cigar and in voice over:
“What are you doing up there with that cigar? You must feel pretty important. Here you don’t have much competition. Outside of Cuba you’d be a nobody…But here, you are well situated. Who’s seen you, and who can see you now, Edmundo Desnoes?”
Gutiérrez Alea has said of his protagonist:
“…Sergio represents the ideal of what everyman…with [a bourgeois ideology] would like to have been: rich, good-looking, intelligent, with access to the upper social strata and to beautiful women who are willing to sleep with him…as the film progresses, one begins to perceive not only the vision that Sergio has of himself but also the vision that reality gives to us…This is the reason for the documentary sequences…little by little, the character begins to destroy himself precisely because reality begins to overwhelm him…”
Julia Levin suggests Alea’s own relationship with the Revolution was often ambivalent:
“An ardent supporter of the revolution that dispatched the despotic Batista and brought Castro to power, Alea nevertheless had an uneasy relationship with the political regime of the revolutionary Cuba under Castro. Repeatedly in his work, the director painted a more complex portrait of Cubans than the rest of the world was able to imagine. He made some gutsy critiques of the socioeconomic and political realities of his land, as he pondered the persistence of a petty-bourgeois mentality in a society supposedly dedicated to the plight of the working poor.”
After its first screenings in New York, Stanley Kaufman in The New Republic hinted at the film’s unusual audience accessibility in the USA and called it: “one of those complex, self-questioning films that occasionally come from police states in their periods of planned relaxation…”, the barbed reference to Cuba as a police state tempered by his admiration for the film’s reflexive complexity.
Comparisons were made with the French New Wave, the ‘alienated’ cinema of Italy’s Michelangelo Antonioni, Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour and Marcello Mastroianni’s work with Fellini. American and European critics went searching through the biographies of Alea and Edmundo Desnoes looking for clues to explain why they were so impressed by the film. Alea was found to be a graduate of Rome’s Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografica and a lover of Italian neo-realism. Desnoes, born in Havana, was partly schooled in the USA and for some of the 1950s lived in New York City.
These biographical details were offered as reasons for a film that some felt questioned the success of the Revolution and saw Sergio as a conflicted, not always admirable protagonist, but an aspiring Eurocentric, marooned in a Caribbean revolution.
While there is probably some truth to these observations, they miss Alea’s and Desnoes’s underlying motivation – Sergio might consistently rail against the underdevelopment in his country, its revolution, its people, his friends and the lovers he exploits, but it’s his ennui and his intellectual alienation that makes him unable to ‘live inside’ the Revolution.
Julianne Burton goes further:
“He won’t desert his position of critical superiority to participate, to act, to engage himself in the world around him.”
After discussing Sergio’s ‘cultural and sexual exploitation of the women in his life”, Burton concludes:
“His memories of underdevelopment provide no refuge. By now, it is abundantly clear…the title of the film refers more pointedly to Sergio’s own moral and political underdevelopment”.
Michael Myerson posits a class struggle concept between workers and capitalists, one that if not sufficiently understood creates a misunderstanding of the film:
“The middle class, the petit bourgeoisie, is squeezed out in the course of a sharpened class struggle. Composed of small businessmen, professionals, and intellectuals, this stratum (as Marxists see it) is constantly vacillating. It has the option of aligning itself with, and serving, either class.”
The vigorous and fluid combination of fiction and documentary makes Memories arresting – what Burton sees as the film’s ability to: “transcend space and ignore time”, and“totally confuse the planes of ‘fiction’ and ‘documentary’ truth”.
The roundtable symposium on “Literature and Underdevelopment” and its aftermath illustrates this. Edmundo Desnoes is a speaker (documentary). Sergio is in the audience (fiction). American playwright Jack Gelber stands and asks:
“Why is it that if the Cuban Revolution is a total revolution, they have to resort to an archaic form of discussion such as the roundtable and treat us to an impotent discussion of issues I’m well informed about, most of the public here are well informed about, when there could be another, more revolutionary way to reach a whole audience like this?”(documentary)
An abrupt cut then shows Sergio walking through an outdoor square. As his voice-over continues, the camera zooms in slowly. Finally, his face fills the frame and all his features dissolve into blobs of filmic grain. (fiction)
I don’t understand. The American was right.
Words devour words and they leave you in the clouds.
How does one get rid of underdevelopment?
It marks everything. Everything…
…In underdevelopment nothing has continuity. Everything is forgotten. People aren’t consistent.
But you remember many things, you remember too much.
Where’s your family, your work, your wife?
You’re nothing, you’re dead.
Now it begins, Sergio.
Your final destruction.
 The CIA plot to invade Cuba and overthrow Fidel Castro’s two-year old revolutionary government faced such fierce opposition from the Cuban Army, that the invaders surrendered three days later. 1,202 were captured, 1,179 put on trial for treason and 1,113 finally exchanged for $US53 million in food and medicine. It was a political disaster for the United States. The Irish Times (18 April 2011) reported that Che Guevara sent President Kennedy a letter: “Thanks for Playa Girón [the Bay of Pigs]. Before the invasion, the revolution was weak. Now it’s stronger than ever.”
 The Missile Crisis came a year after the Bay of Pigs fiasco. The Soviet Union agreed to a request from Castro to place nuclear missiles on Cuban soil, thereby deterring any future invasion by the United States. When the nuclear installations were discovered by US spy aircraft, President Kennedy responded with a naval blockade of the island. Daniel Ellsberg in The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner, (Bloomsbury, New York, 2017) states President Kennedy had been told in early 1961 that a nuclear war would likely kill a third of humanity, with most or all of those deaths concentrated in the USA, the USSR, Europe and China. The stand-off between the USA and the USSR eventually ended with Khrushchev agreeing to dismantle the missiles on Cuba in return for the US dismantling its missiles in Turkey and Italy. Kennedy wrote to Khrushchev promising not to invade Cuba again: “The US will make a statement in the framework of the Security Council in reference to Cuba as follows: it will declare that the United States of America will respect the inviolability of Cuban borders, its sovereignty, that it takes the pledge not to interfere in internal affairs, not to intrude themselves and not to permit our territory to be used as a bridgehead for the invasion of Cuba and will restrain those who would plan to carry an aggression against Cuba, either from US territory or from the territory of other countries neighboring to Cuba…”(Blight, James G. and Janet M. Lang The Armageddon Letters: Kennedy, Khrushchev, Castro in the Cuban Missile Crisis, Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Limited, 2012).
Hoberman, The New York Times, 11 January 2018,
Penelope Gilliatt, The New Yorker, 23 May 1973
Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, Michael Chanan, Edmundo Desnoes, Memories of Underdevelopment and Inconsolable Memories, Rutgers University Press, 1990
Julia Levin, Senses of Cinema, October 2005
Stanley Kaufman, The New Republic, 19 May 1972
Julianne Burton, Memories of Underdevelopment in the Land of Overdevelopment, Cineaste, No 1 (Summer 1977)
Michael Myerson, Memories of Underdevelopment The Revolutionary Films of Cuba, editor, Grossman Publishers, New York 1973
A 4K restoration from Cineteca di Bologna L’Immagine Ritrovata Laboratory in association with ICAIC (Instituto Cubana del Arte e Industria Cinematograficos) and funded by the George Lucas Family Foundation for the World Cinema Project. A vintage interpositive from the ICAIC was used to replace sections of the original camera negative effected by advanced vinegar syndrome. The mono soundtrack was remastered from the original soundtrack negative.
Dir: Tomás Gutiérrez ALEA | Cuba | 1968 | 97 mins | B&W | Sound | Spanish with English subtitles | DCP (originally 35mm) | U/C15+.
Prod Co: Cuban State Film, Instituto Cubano del Arte e Industrias Cinematográficos | Prod: Miguel MENDOZA | Scr: Edmundo DESNOES, Tomás Gutiérrez ALEA, from Desnoes’ novel | Photo: Ramón F. SUÁREZ | Edit: Nelson RODRIGUEZ | Des/Art: Julio MATILA | Sound: Carlos FERNÁNDEZ, Germinal HERNÁNDEZ, Eugenio VESA | Music: Leo BROUWER.
Cast: Sergio CORRIERI (Sergio Mendoyo), Daisy GRANADOS (Elena), Eslinda éNÚÑEZ (Noemi), Omar VALDÉS (Pablo), René DE LA CRUZ (Elena’s Brother), Tomás Gutiérrez ALEA (himself), Edmundo DESNOES (himself), Jack GELBER (himself).
Source: Cineteca di Bologna. (Thanks to Guy Borlée, Carmen Accaputo, Claudia Menzella)
Notes by Rod Bishop