When Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s fifth feature, Memories of Underdevelopment, first hit Cuban theaters in 1968, it was immediately lauded as one of the best films to come out of the island in the decade following Castro’s revolution. This month marks the fiftieth anniversary of the film’s theatrical release, and its importance in the landscape of Latin American film has only become more apparent with time.
We learned a lot about Memories and that rich moment in Cuban film history while putting together the new Criterion edition. Below are some highlights from the stories we picked up along the way.
A godfather of sorts in modern Cuban cinema, Tomás Gutiérrez Alea—known among friends and colleagues as “Titón”—showed an equal commitment to art and politics early in his career. He first started directing shorts with soon-to-be-renowned cinematographer Néstor Almendros while still a law student at the University of Havana, and he continued his cinematic education in Rome (one classmate was future Nobel laureate Gabriel García Márquez) before returning to Cuba to work on variety shows on television. At that point, well before the revolution, he was already an ardent leftist and eagerly joined Castro’s fight against dictator Fulgencio Batista. In 1959, following Batista’s defeat, he helped found the Instituto Cubano del Arte e Industria Cinematográfica (ICAIC), the government wing that would oversee all film production and ensure that Cuban cinema—documentary and fiction alike—promoted the revolutionary cause.
Gutiérrez Alea cowrote the screenplay for Memories with Edmundo Desnoes, who had written the 1964 novella upon which the film is based. The novelist is quick to assert in interviews that the film’s flaky, apolitical protagonist, Sergio, who spends his days wandering around Havana criticizing those who participate in the revolution as well as those who have fled abroad, is actually a fictionalized version of himself. Desnoes was so impressed with Gutiérrez Alea’s final product that for a 1967 English translation, he incorporated scenes that had been written for the film, including one in which a disgusted Sergio pays a visit to Ernest Hemingway’s tourist-ridden house.
Both Gutiérrez Alea and Desnoes have short cameos in the film. Gutiérrez Alea plays a director at the ICAIC who agrees to put a screen test together for aspiring actress Elena, Sergio’s romantic interest. Desnoes can be seen later in the film, participating in a panel about literature and underdevelopment.
Even while following a script, Gutiérrez Alea leaned into an improvisatory style of direction. Many of the film’s most memorable sequences, such as one in which Sergio makes his way through a crowd celebrating May Day, were caught on the fly. And when the crew showed up to shoot at the high-rise apartment where Sergio lives, Gutiérrez Alea found a telescope on the balcony, which he had actor Sergio Corrieri use in multiple sequences. It would become one of the strongest symbols of the character’s observational detachment from the surrounding city.
There was initial doubt over whether the then-twenty-nine-year-old Corrieri would look old enough to play the fictional Sergio, who was supposed to be thirty-eight. The actor dyed streaks of grey into his hair to achieve an aged look. Corrieri went on to have an illustrious career in film and television, notably in En silencio ha tenido que ser, a popular series based on the real-life infiltration of a Cuban spy into the United States. The actor also dedicated long portions of his life to theater and politics, taking his theater troupe on tours of inland Cuba, Angola, and Nicaragua while serving in multiple positions within the government and Communist party.
Though shot in 1967, Memories takes place in the early years of the revolution. In order to create a more realistic sense of the period, Gutiérrez Alea incorporated documentary footage from films he had made for ICAIC at the time, including parts of Death to the Invader, a documentary reel he codirected.
One particular scene caused some trouble days before the premiere. According to editor Nelson Rodríguez, a colleague called to inform him and Gutiérrez Alea that they urgently needed to cut a moment in the film in which Sergio caustically claims that Cuban women’s bodies degrade horribly over time. Someone had noticed that one of the women featured in the sequence was the mother of a foreign official.
Memories was not released in the United States until 1972, when it screened as part of the New Directors, New Films festival at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Museum of Modern Art. Gutiérrez Alea wasn’t able to attend, as he had been denied an entry visa. Coming to the director’s defense, critic Andrew Sarris praised him as a dissident and interpreted the film as a criticism of Castro’s regime. These were claims that Gutiérrez Alea, who saw the film not as an anti-revolutionary work but as an indictment of bourgeois detachment, later rejected.
Guitérrez Alea continued to direct prolifically in Cuba until his death in 1998 and had another major international success with his penultimate film, Strawberry and Chocolate, which earned an Academy Award nomination for best foreign-language film. His status gave him a platform to publicly criticize government actions he disagreed with. In his later years, he published a controversial article that excoriated those whom he felt had neglected the revolution’s humanist goals in the name of ideological purity.
Toward the end of Memories, we follow Sergio’s affair with Hanna, a blonde German student. The relationship is based on Desnoes’s real-life teenaged romance with a woman named Felicia Rosshandler, whose own family had fled to Cuba from Nazi Germany as Jewish refugees. The young couple ended things when Rosshandler’s family moved to New York, but decades later, she saw Memories when it premiered in the States, and immediately recognized herself in the character on-screen. They reunited in 1980, a year after Desnoes defected. They soon married and live together in Manhattan to this day.