Memories of Underdevelopment: Imaging History

Memories of Underdevelopment: Imaging History

On Film / Essays — Aug 26, 2018

Along the broad boulevard in Havana that all Cubans know as Calle 23, near the Colón Cemetery and where the avenue crosses Tenth Street, there’s a large concrete building, painted white. The facade has been rendered dingy by exhaust from the old Buicks and Fords plying the avenue as taxis, and there’s little about it to suggest its identity from outside. But in a country whose love for cinema has both transcended and been fed by six decades of communism, this is a hallowed site: it has housed, since just after the triumph of Fidel Castro’s revolution, the Instituto Cubano del Arte e Industria Cinematográficos. 

ICAIC was launched on March 24, 1959, a mere eighty-two days after Castro ran the dictator Fulgencio Batista from Havana. During the revolution, Castro and his comrades had absorbed the potent help that moving images—of the bearded men smoking pipes in the mountains, or waving to adoring crowds from their jeeps—could provide in building support for their cause. In the early weeks of 1959, Che Guevara and the rebel army’s “cultural division” commissioned a pair of documentaries to capture the revolution’s immediate land-reform efforts.  

That spring, as ragged revolutionaries took their places behind desks and sought to channel their energy for battle into institution building, ICAIC was born as part of the new Ministry of Culture. Havana already boasted over 350 movie theaters—more than Paris or New York—where Cubans flocked to see Hollywood westerns and musicals and Mexican melodramas and gangster flicks. What ICAIC aimed to do was make Cuba a country that didn’t merely watch movies but produced them. In this, the institute’s filmmakers would prove hugely successful: over the institute’s first twenty-five years, they churned out some nine hundred documentary shorts and over a hundred narrative and nonfiction features. More complex was the inherent tension within the institute’s stated view that cinema was both “the most powerful and provocative form of artistic expression, and the most direct and widespread vehicle for education and bringing ideas to the public.”  

In 1961, Castro made his famous proclamation about what would be allowed when it came to creative expression: “Inside the revolution, everything; outside of it, nothing.” This dictum had the advantage, for Communist Party censors, of leaving it up to them what qualified as “outside.” Beginning in the sixties, several prominent writers and artists ceased receiving state backing because of “ideological deviation” and left the island. But arguably more striking was the revolution’s foremost filmmakers’ success, from the start, at parlaying their leaders’ respect for cinema into an opportunity to tell stories that didn’t shy from examining the tensions of Cuban life. By ICAIC’s tenth birthday, films like Humberto Solás’s Lucía had become touchstones on an island where even rural people, thanks to mobile projectors, could also absorb the layered documentaries of Julio García Espinosa. But perhaps no one was more responsible for cinema’s unique place in Cuba’s new society than Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, a cofounder of ICAIC who went on to become not merely Cuba’s most important filmmaker but also a signal figure in world cinema of the twentieth century. 

“Gutiérrez Alea became Cuba’s leading defender of cinema as a medium able to at once ‘criticize and deepen the reality in which we’re immersed.’ ”

Gutiérrez Alea was born to a progressive middle-class family in Havana in 1928 and went in the early fifties to study film at Rome’s Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia, the same school that had produced Michelangelo Antonioni. He returned home to make, with García Espinosa, a neorealist portrait of charcoal burners in Havana, El mégano (1955), which was banned by Batista but laid the groundwork for Gutiérrez Alea to make one of those documentaries commissioned by Guevara in 1959—and to become, as a staunch backer of the revolution who was also an uncompromising artist, Cuba’s leading defender of cinema as a medium able to at once “criticize and deepen the reality in which we’re immersed.” 

Over the three-plus decades between ICAIC’s founding and his premature death from cancer in 1996, Gutiérrez Alea made nineteen films. All of them are worthwhile, several of them are essential, and one of them—Strawberry and Chocolate (codirected with Juan Carlos Tabío, 1993)—won him overdue recognition in Hollywood. But long before he became known for that charming depiction of a friendship between a freethinking gay man and a doctrinaire young communist, Gutiérrez Alea made two features in the sixties—when the role of art in Cuba was up for grabs—that cemented his place in the annals of cinema. 

The first of these films was Death of a Bureaucrat (1966). It’s a black comedy that traces—with nods to Chaplin and Buñuel—a man’s valiant battle, against a rising communist bureaucracy already paralyzed by red tape, to bury his uncle in the Colón Cemetery. The second, released in 1968, remains Gutiérrez Alea’s masterpiece. Memories of Underdevelopment is his portrait—visually explosive, formally pathbreaking, morally complex—of a disaffected man trying to reconcile himself, or not, to history. 

Gutiérrez Alea was thirty-eight when he decided to adapt a short novel by the Cuban writer Edmundo Desnoes into a film—the same age as the story’s protagonist. That’s not all they shared: Sergio is, as Gutiérrez Alea was, a bourgeois intellectual and a light-skinned member of Havana’s elite. We watch him, in the film’s opening scene, say goodbye to friends and family and to his wife, whom he can’t wait to put on a plane to Miami. His story unfolds in 1961 and 1962, over the pregnant months between the Bay of Pigs invasion and the scary days of what Cubans call the Crisis de Octubre, when their leaders’ confrontation with Washington nearly became a nuclear war. Memories of Underdevelopment is an exercise in narrating, in cinematic terms, a history that was still ongoing. It examined events from a half decade before: momentous days and images that continued, in 1968, to shape the story of a revolution that had left its heady youth behind and was just beginning to deal with the contradictions of adulthood.

Sergio remains in Havana because of inertia and ennui, not conviction. He is glad to live off the rent collected from his family’s property, and ambivalent at best about the changes he sees in the streets. Sergio—played with a permanent sneer by Sergio Corrieri—wants to write a book. But mostly he fills his days spying on others from his balcony and playing odd games with his wife’s old stockings. He’s a sophisticate from whose lips the word underdevelopment falls easily: he has no problem tying statistics about child poverty in Latin America to colonial predation. But when he attends a ponderous public forum about the role of intellectuals in building socialism in Cuba, he’s more bemused than engaged by the earnest men onstage. He’s more interested in trying, insofar as is possible in this backward place, “to live like a European.”

About the only thing that Sergio seems to like about Cuba is that women, as he prowls Havana, return his gaze. By the time he bumps into the one who’ll drive the film’s story, we know he is not to be trusted. Maybe Elena does, too. But she’s as bored as he is: she’s a simple girl from outside town, loitering on Calle 23 in a pretty skirt, waiting for a break. Or maybe for a well-dressed stranger who has an apartment nearby, on a higher floor than she’s ever been to, that is full of his wife’s fancy clothes, to which he says she’s welcome. 

The elegant Havana neighborhood where all this occurs, Vedado, was the old city’s first suburb in the nineteenth century. Since the 1930s, it has been the part of town around which its modern hopes—its iconic movie houses and ice-cream parks and mob-built hotels—have clustered. It’s also home to ICAIC, and one of this film’s more amusing moments arrives when Sergio takes Elena—played with a magical mixture of naïveté and gravitas by Daisy Granados, an actor who would star in many of ICAIC’s major productions—there to audition for a filmmaker friend of his, a certain Tomás Gutiérrez Alea.   

Gutiérrez Alea, as a key intellectual author of the New Latin American Cinema, famously rejected the European idea of auteurship in film: he and his colleagues at ICAIC tried to evolve a practice of cinema as collective endeavor. But one of the keen pleasures of Memories of Underdevelopment, especially for anyone who has experienced the real-life cinematic quality of Vedado’s streets, is the painterly care with which Gutiérrez Alea and his cameraman, Ramón F. Suárez, compose each frame of Sergio and Elena’s desultory affair: whether the filmmaker embraced the auteur tag or not, he was a cinematic storyteller the equal of any in Paris. 

Sergio quickly tires of Elena. When they go to a bookstore, she looks at her nails; at the art museum, she studies her purse. Elena becomes a symbol of Sergio’s contempt for his island: “She makes me feel underdevelopment at every step.” They visit another high-cultural site whose import sails over her head—Ernest Hemingway’s old home outside Havana, which, then as now, has been preserved as a tourist trap, its bookcases lined with Cervantes and Arthur Miller and its walls hung with stags’ heads. There, he ditches her. Elena’s working-class family is livid that he’s thieved her honor—we learn she’s only sixteen. They accuse Sergio of rape. He is hauled into court. Such is the main plot, or lack thereof, of the film. The power of Memories of Underdevelopment derives less from the quotidian drama it depicts than from the way Gutiérrez Alea uses cinematic imagery both to sketch Sergio’s internal life and to set that life against the larger historical drama unfolding on an island that’s not only attempting a wholesale transformation of society but will soon bring the world to the brink of nuclear war. 

Sergio is fixated on sex and on his own frustrations as an artist. On his mind’s movie screen, he plays and replays erotic reveries—a riverine fantasy involving his housekeeper; bits from the porn flicks made in Havana in the mob-run fifties; gauzy memories of a blonde German woman with whom he fell in love at school. He’s annoyed by marchers in the streets. He doesn’t seem to glean what’s happening when state officials come to grill him about how many people are living in his huge apartment building. (We know: it will soon be taken from him.) But the world as it is—the world that made this film—has a way of intruding. 

At ICAIC, he encounters Gutiérrez Alea. At that round­table discussion, one of the participants is a writer named Edmundo Desnoes. And while at the film’s start Sergio looks through his telescope at sunbathers by a hotel pool, by the end he’s watching soldiers, on that same sundeck, installing artillery aimed at el imperio to the north. Castro, determined that his little island should be seen as a big nation, has welcomed Soviet missiles to its shores, and the hemisphere is nearing Armageddon’s gate.   

Sergio witnesses these dramas firsthand, from his balcony or rolling by Havana’s seawall with a taxi-driving friend. But as crucial as what he absorbs through his telescope is the larger body of images, from newsreels and other footage, that shapes his and all Cubans’ understanding of these drama-filled days: Gutiérrez Alea dots Sergio’s consciousness with clips from actual documentaries produced by ICAIC’s filmmakers—the invasion by the yanquis; the trials of traitors; the mobilization, as October nears, for war. 

“In 1968 and after, many saw the film as a burning indictment of the passive intellectual refusing to engage in revolution.”

In much of the world now, 1968 is recalled as a year when young people from Prague to Paris to Mexico City heralded a New Left’s rising. But in Cuba, it is just as well recalled for being when Castro bowed to realpolitik and sided with his power’s sponsor, backing Moscow’s tanks over the makers of the Prague Spring. Fourteen years later, Gutiérrez Alea wrote an essay in which he observed that “the revolution has left behind its most spectacular moments.” By that point, Fidel’s revolution had reached a stolid middle age. It was on its way to remarkably surviving not merely Fidel’s senescence—and the breakup of the Soviet bloc—but his eventual demise. But in 1982, Fidel was fifty-six. Gutiérrez Alea, his near contemporary, reminisced about days full of “the bearded men, the palm fronds . . . the vertigo of all the changes that were happening,” when it “was almost sufficient just to record deeds, seize some fragment directly from reality, and give witness to what was going on in the streets.” It was partly through doing that, he said, that “Cuban cinema emerged as one more facet of reality within the revolution.” But, as a filmmaker who believed in socialism but also in serving Cuba’s people through art, he also warned against “the dangers contained within a tendency to schematize.”

With Memories of Underdevelopment, it was his distinct achievement to model how to strike this balance. The U.S. State Department may have refused him a visa to accept an award for the film because it was seen as a piece of agitprop hostile to Cuba’s bourgeoisie, but that interpretation would have been news to members of that group in Miami, who hailed the film as a potent depiction of why they’d left. Neither read feels exactly apt, but for Gutiérrez Alea, such divergent conclusions meant success; the part of Latin America’s “Third Cinema” ideology that resonated most powerfully with him was the ideal of involving one’s audience in the cinematic enterprise—and thus trusting them enough to think and feel what they will. 

Memories of Underdevelopment is an empathetic portrait of an unsympathetic man. In 1968 and after, many saw it as a burning indictment of the passive intellectual refusing to engage in revolution. Perhaps now it is easier to glean aims that were, for the filmmaker, far subtler. Sergio is flawed, but never inauthentic or inhuman. Gutiérrez Alea presents him as just as much a part of the revolution’s story, and of what it had to contend with, as the illiterate peasant. And it is this aspect of the film that helped open the space for countless other Cuban filmmakers to furnish this island with movies—from Sara Gómez’s De cierta manera in 1977 to Fernando Pérez’s Suite Habana in 2003—that respected its people enough to reflect the ambiguities of their lives on-screen. 

Gutiérrez Alea’s masterpiece is being rereleased in a year when Cuba is again in the midst of momentous change. In the spring of 2018, Fidel’s brother Raúl Castro stepped down from the presidency. This follows a drama-filled couple of years marked by Barack Obama’s historic visit and Fidel’s death—all moments that have been depicted in the international media as watersheds. They have at times felt like that in Havana. But on Vedado’s quiet blocks and on the stretch of Calle 23 near ICAIC where teenagers flirt and the taxis still rumble past, such moments have as often seemed like background to the intimate dramas of daily life. 

Nowadays, the images by which lived moments are rendered as history, in Cuba like everywhere else, are absorbed as often from glowing smartphones as from the big screen at the Yara cinema. The implications of such shifts are deep. But in continuing to parse them, we can be more grateful than ever to have this Cuban classic to turn to. Memories of Underdevelopment remains among our most refractive and eloquent meditations on the power of moving images to at once capture history and shape it.