Memories of Underdevelopment
Directed by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea
Written by Edmundo Desnoes
A film directed by Tomas Gutierrez Alea in 1968, Memories of Underdevelopment looks at imperial influence in Cuba during the Cold War. Imperial influences referring to the United States and Russia as both countries believed that Cuba was vulnerable due to its status as a developing nation. Because of the United States’ close proximity, Alea emphasized their capitalistic impact through the character, Sergio, an upper class writer who never quite lived out his passion, as he struggles to define who he is, what he loves, and where he is placed within his own country amidst its Revolution. Because Alea filmed this during a time of political turmoil, he mixed low budget, documentary footage of the revolution with a fictional narrative in order to distract those who had the power to ban it. Which is typical for Cuban cinema during the 1960s. And Alea is known for filming social realities through metaphors and fictitious characters.
The film looks into Sergio’s contradictory, romantic ventures, as his voice over invites the viewer inside his thoughts on women, politics, his marriage separation, etc. We see that although he hates American culture, he loves American made women, and those who look as though they’ve walked out of Vogue. Sergio is hopeful for Cuba during the revolution, his reason for staying behind while his wife shipped off to Miami. But he describes Cuban women as rotting fruit, and the camera pans an outdoor pool where these women are lounging, never capturing their faces, just their bodies, as though these women represent Cuba as a whole and appearances reflect politics. Alea questions Cuba’s motives for ingesting American democracy, using romance and women to reflect his ideas, as capitalism affects not only political matters but also individual values. Values in the sense of ideas over appearance, experiences over materialism, political knowledge over passive attitudes, etc.
Sergio moves through romantic relationships that he hopes will fulfill him, but eventually finds himself alone and in the middle of a revolution. The beginning of the film sees him spectating Cuba through a telescope in his upper class, top floor apartment. And at the end we see him on the other side of the telescope, an ant walking through the streets, reality swallowing him as he decides to act on his political opinions rather than talk about them. There is a shooting in the first few scenes to establish the hidden chaos within Cuba that the government handles immorally, and at the end we see Sergio standing in the crowd, seeing the reality of the Cuban Revolution in front of him rather than through a telescope, or reading about it through a newspaper. Developing his thoughts on imperialism from a different perspective.
Alea not only offers the viewer a different perspective on Cuba during the Cold War, but he also wants to question the language associated with countries that have not embraced American democracy. The term underdevelopment goes beyond Sergio’s struggle to solidify his identity as he attempts to shape his memories and beliefs through romance, education, and finally his physical presence within the revolution. The term underdevelopment stems from the perception that Latin American countries are third world, or developing. And with this title, imperial countries justify their actions of intervening with the goal of implementing their ideals over developing ideals.
Alea’s film is meant to critique what it means to be a developing country during the 1960s. Therefore critiquing the motives of imperial countries in dictating Cuban politics and failure to include the public in their decisions. Alea legitimizes the revolution as a form of resistance towards American democracy. However, I would argue, based on his other films, he did not mean to support the direction Cuba was heading towards with Castro’s government. A government that disregards their people’s voice. In a sense he believes that Cuba is a developing country, but not in the way imperial countries use the term. The film believes that because the country is in the middle of sorting itself out, imperial aid should remain at bay, it is their intervention that confuses the process of identity formation. And as author Jonathan King argues about the Cuban Revolution, “the Revolution is made up of not stereotyped, exemplary ‘new’ men and women…but rather of individuals still crossed by contradictory desires and aspirations.” It is because of these contradictions, and indecisiveness that allowed a leader such as Castro to rise into power. Alea, with this film, wants Cuba to take a step back, process what is politically occurring, and organize itself without imperial involvement because Cuba has the tools to do so, they’re simply overwhelmed and overpowered.
Although I’ll have to admit that because I grew up in the United States, I grew up learning about the injustice of Castro, therefore leaving me with a biased opinion of both the Cold War and the Cuban Revolution (I’ll also admit that the Cuban Revolution was left out of my textbook as the class was more focused on Stalin and essentially teaching students that the Cold War was only between Russia and America, America playing the victim). And I know more about the missing persons issue in other Latin American countries more so than the government of Castro. Which is where readers should chime in if they know about Cuban opinion on Castro. And talk about their thoughts on this film and Alea’s portrayal of America, Cuba, and the Revolution.