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Excerpted from the author’s 2015 undergraduate honor’s thesis

The Unfixed Present of Memories of Underdevelopment

Miguel Penabella

Eslinda Núñez and Sergio Corrieri in “Memories of Underdevelopment,” directed by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea.

Nothing endures.

– Sergio Mendoyo, Memories of Underdevelopment

Based on a 1967 novel by Edmundo Desnoes titled Inconsolable Memories, the film Memories of Underdevelopment (Memorias del Subdesarrollo, Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, 1968) depicts Cuba in a transitory, in-between state looking back on the years immediately following Fidel Castro’s socialist revolution and looking forward toward a moment before the Cuban missile crisis. Alea is interested in a post-revolutionary inertia with a setting seemingly left behind in the annals of history. By looking at historical developments like the formation of a Cuban film institute and nascent theorizations of Latin American cinema, we’ll be better able to arrive at the allegorization of Cuba and its weary characters that Alea seems to suggest here. The film visually juxtaposes Cuba’s rustic, old-world urban sprawl with an aimless protagonist prone to recurrent wandering. The relationship between the space and its characters is crucial for Alea’s project that suggests an uncertain future for an increasingly deserted island with no sense of present time. I aim to show that Memories of Underdevelopment employs its protagonist, Sergio (Sergio Corrieri), as a metaphor for Cuba itself. I argue that Sergio’s nostalgic reflections about a bygone Cuba that no longer exists amidst revolutionary socialist politics suggests an imagined, mythical history that repels the dreary prospects of the future. Sergio, like 1960s Cuba, exists in an obstinate, limbo-like stasis set adrift and robbed of activity.

Tomás Gutiérrez Alea produces this disconnect between the past and present not only in terms of Sergio’s characterization and a meandering narrative, but with his technical choices as well. Frequent uses of flashback with a disjunctive voiceover, appropriation of found newsreel footage, and inclusion of still photography call attention to a fascination with the past and how characters remember Cuba. My examination of this film proposes that these devices contribute to a sense of disarticulation amongst the characters, or an inability to communicate within the present realities of Cuba without reconstructing an illusory past. Sergio lacks anything particularly meaningful to say in his dismal present situation, and he becomes a character removed from his own environment. This observation is important because it also mirrors the in-betweenness of Alea’s film espousing a kind of Europeanist bourgeois sensibility responding to the developments of Latin American film theorists shedding these traditions. This investigation of Memories of Underdevelopment will hopefully clarify the histories and cultural factors often unheeded in film analysis, as well as the contemporary theoretical texts that surround such works. This factor is important in sidestepping a Western-centric narrative of analysis, emphasizing the need to contextualize and provide background for a Cuban filmmaker steeped in his own culture. Although Memories of Underdevelopment may borrow from European traditions and theorizations, Alea boasts a blossoming post-revolutionary visual language all his own and frozen between the world of past and present.

Alea & Post-Revolutionary Cuba

Although the background of director Tomás Gutiérrez Alea and the Cuban political situation of the time period are important cultural contexts for examining Memories of Underdevelopment, existing European film styles also inform the foundation of a national cinema in the service of giving a greater voice to the people of Cuba. Alea’s style may lend itself to real-world cultural and historical contexts of a post-revolutionary locale, but there is no such thing as a genuine, singular national cinema. Instead, these contexts and influences work in conjunction, further signifying the tension between the work of the past and a forward-looking Cuban cinema just beginning to form. 

Alea is a filmmaker who began and ended his career in Cuba, associated with the political regime even if he’s also critical of many aspects of its power. The director studied at the Centro Sperimentale in Rome and graduated in 1953, perhaps directly lifting the influence of Italian neorealism while there (Stam 94). Like many of his Latin American cinematic contemporaries, Alea built upon the work of Italian neorealism and Soviet montage cinema not because it was wholly apropos to nationalist struggle and underdevelopment, but because it provided certain visual strategies in filming impoverished peoples. These strategies included on-location shooting, longer takes emphasizing real-time duration, and rougher images sometimes filmed in cheaper handheld cameras to produce documentary-like images of reality. On-location shooting and the use of unprofessional non-actors for supporting characters gesture towards an immediate, authentic representation of social life on real streets instead of the artifice of studio filmmaking. Alea emerged from Cuban national film production and the establishment of the ICAIC (Instituto Cubano del Arte e Industrias Cinematográficos), or the Cuban Institute of Film Art and Industry in March 1959, an attempt at a national film language by the state but inspired by established Soviet filmmakers who came before. These Cuban filmmakers studied “ … the theories of Soviet filmmakers such as Sergei Eisenstein … and Lev Kuleshov,” only to refashion their cinema apart from Soviet didactics and towards subject matter more relevant to early 1960s Cuba (Stone 66).

Tomás Gutiérrez Alea filming; he’s considered Cuba’s greatest and best-known director for his insightful films that examine post-Revolutionary Cuba.

Moreover, the 1964 co-production between the Soviet Mosfilm and the ICAIC in Mikhail Kalatozov’s I Am Cuba blends the film cultures of Cuba and the Soviet Union under a Russian filmmaker, and this cross-pollination of Latin American and European traditions offers a surreal perspective of Cuban politics. I Am Cuba’s reconstruction of unruly Cuban politics via “dizzying camera movements and a chaotic, even bullying, visual rhythm” involves single takes that endlessly prolong time and a handheld camera swerving through bodies that renders the passage of time as sensory spectacle (Stone 67). This film embodies one particularly expressive example of the hybridity of Cuban and European filmic traditions, tying the unique political situation of Cuba within a broader pool of established aesthetic strategies. Alea’s filmmaking methods and aimlessly wandering camera echoes Kalatozov’s earlier work, and Alea further extracts techniques from a European tradition with the aforesaid Italian neorealist influences. If Cuba exists in a state of underdevelopment, then postwar Italy certainly embodies similar characteristics that Alea’s films readily evoke. More specifically, Alea’s lifted neorealist strategies include the aforesaid techniques but especially filming on-location around the streets of Havana, capturing gritty footage on handheld cameras, and employing non-professional actors for the supporting characters. An early feature film of the ICAIC dealt with the revolutionary struggle itself, Alea’s 1960 episodic movie Historias de la Revolución, a film that offers a retrospective glimpse at late 1950s Cuban politics. Its fragmentary, episodic structure is born out of Italian neorealism, and specifically Roberto Rossellini’s 1946 movie Paisan, which cinematographer Otello Martelli also shot (Chanan Cinema, 147).

Films like Historias de la Revolución and Memories of Underdevelopment wistfully envision an unlived, potentially imaginary history of Cuba. Quoting the writer Eduardo Heras León, Cuban film theorist Michael Chanan identifies the motivation behind these films, restating, “We were anxious to relive the history that many of us had not been able to help make” (Chanan Cinema, 145). Independent Cuban cinema under the ICAIC would rebel against domineering hegemonic powers in the 1960s, ultimately forging a national cultural identity dissimilar yet borrowing from other traditions. Alongside the influences of Italy and the Soviet Union, Cuban filmmakers also admired the youthful and nonconformist French New Wave and its nostalgic tinge that reminisced and reassembled Hollywood conventions. Moreover, the use of newsreel footage and found photography in Memories of Underdevelopment creates a sense of ambiguity between the worlds of the fictive and the real. Such devices render Sergio a spectator in the backseat of the film’s reflection on Cuba and the revolution, ultimately entrenching the intellectual antihero in constant stasis.

The filmic traditions and theorizations produced in Latin America expanded its European roots while also remaining in dialogue across diverse cultures. The cinema of the burgeoning “Third World” was formed out of colonialism and refers to the economic and political structural subjugation by colonizing nations. Coined in the 1960s by Argentine filmmakers Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino, Third Cinema thus addressed neocolonialist issues and political strife that directed national conflict (Dennison 5). Meant to decolonize viewers from domineering, subjugating power relations, Third Cinema offered an alternate voice in cinema for the typically disenfranchised. In addition, the further establishment in the 1960s of “el nuevo cine latinoamericano” witnessed Latin American filmmakers working through theories of underdevelopment to break down the elements of economic exploitation by urban centers (Chanan Remapping, 38-39). Coupled with Cuba’s enjoyment of “100 percent literacy by 1963,” these highly politically charged, neocolonialist film theories reflected a populace that was moderately informed and increasingly educated (Goodman 28). The ICAIC broadened Cuban filmmakers’ familiarity of global cinema and film history further, screening foreign films that resulted in a syncretistic visual language by filmmakers that drew from a variety of traditions but for a wholly Cuban experience. These foundations brought about important cinematic perspectives in Cuba, offering narratives that directly addressed problems faced in a post-revolution society. 

Sergio in Stasis

The aforesaid cultural contexts enrich the link between Cuban politics and temporality rather than simply disavow the study of global art cinema. These contexts inform our understanding of Memories of Underdevelopment’s central character Sergio Carmona Mendoyo and his decision to stay rooted in post-revolution Cuba long after his friends and family flee the country for the United States. Alea gleans strategies and the language of different national film cultures while simultaneously trying to forge works that speak distinctly about Cuba. In the case of Abbas Kiarostami, this cross-pollination is similar, perhaps even more prevalent because of increased globalization of film cultures from the 1960s onwards. Here, Alea is directly engaging with the effect of the 1959 Cuban Revolution on Cubans over Kiarostami’s relaxed, contemplative approach. The character Sergio filters our experience of a specific setting through a purposeless, wayward human perspective in a nowhere place analogous to The Wind Will Carry Us’ Behzad, and his ennui boasts a more immediate political context. The story of Memories of Underdevelopment largely concerns the humdrum everyday life of Sergio following the mass exodus of Cubans from a country with an unsure future. Alea films the character without much to do, often seen strolling around an unhurried city, reading newspapers, exploring his apartment, listening to audio recordings of conversations with his wife, and ruminating on life in Cuba before political strife.

Tomás Gutiérrez Alea conveys Sergio’s alienation and disarticulation from present time via a decelerated, disaffected initial sequence through his lavish but empty apartment. Upon arrival, Alea provides a point-of-view dolly shot that gently tracks through this interior space, and only Sergio’s offscreen whistling marks his presence. Gentle camera pans that overlook personal objects simulate Sergio’s head movement. This scene embodies a cinema without people; Sergio is left lonely and isolated, especially since most have departed from Cuba. Indeed, an insert shot in this sequence of a typewriter spelling out “All those who loved and nagged me up to the last moment have already gone” cements this isolation further. Sergio seems to grow increasingly invisible as well given his lack of bodily presence to establish this scene, substituting his physical existence for offscreen sound. When Alea’s camera finally locates Sergio, the director shoots the character swallowed up by a minimalist mise-en-scène reminiscent of Italian filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni and his 1962 film L’Eclisse, underlining a sense of contemporary alienation via the empty space of blank walls.

Sergio spies the surrounding neighborhood with his telescope trained outside his apartment block.

The point-of-view visual strategies and stark mise-en-scène contributes to Sergio’s existence as a seer rather than as an agent. His actions largely revolve around his ability to look but not to act with any substance in these initial scenes. The progress of time and the dissolution of old Cuba chips away at this character, rendering him useless and lethargic and also lacking significant goals or motivations. Sergio reflects on his desire to write a book but casts doubts on whether or not he has anything to even say. His self-doubt suggests the uncertainty of the Cuban populace given its shaky political situation in the 1960s and the greater haziness of the future to come. Indeed, Sergio directly ponders the changing status of Cuba when he spies the surrounding neighborhood with his telescope trained outside his apartment block. He questions aloud, “Have I changed or has the city changed?” and his habitual act of spying with his telescope outside his window exhibits a character left only with the capacity for looking and reflecting, rather than a character with action-oriented goals and active involvement with space. Alea films through the claustrophobic perspective of Sergio looking through the telescope, and the image shrinks to a circular telescopic frame. This tight framing suggests personal entrapment in an unfamiliar Cuban landscape, one in which “Everything is the same. All of a sudden it looks like a set, a city of cardboard.”

Sergio sardonically remarks that Cuba is free and independent, but Alea’s tight framing suggests otherwise, instead conveying a sense of imprisonment amidst impassive architecture and the estranged citizens below. Indeed, Alea supports this sense of personal imprisonment further by interrupting Sergio’s surveillance when he checks in on his caged pet birds, realizing that one of them has died. The only release from imprisonment is through death, proposing a cynical outlook towards contemporary Cuban society. The director also portrays Sergio mired in nostalgia, and this condition is similarly alienating and enervating. The protagonist rummages through his wife Laura’s belongings left behind in their bedroom, and Alea invites audiences into Sergio’s subjectivity with occasional flashback glimpses into their past. One particular moment involves Sergio donning his wife’s discarded stocking over his entire head while he listens to an old recording of a conversation. The stocking mask looks asphyxiating, as though these leftover remnants from the past are slowly entrapping and endangering a character who cannot seem to appreciate his present circumstances. If the initial images expressed imprisonment within the island of Cuba, this asphyxiating mask represents personal oppression and Sergio’s restlessness in a land without purpose.

Sergio’s frequent acts of remembering characterize him as a figure disarticulated from the present and deprived of any substantial agency. Nostalgia takes hold of the character, forming an inauthentic fantasy of Cuba in the past and stubbornly repressing his alienated position without any friends or family. His decision to stay in Cuba proves an ultimately foolish decision because Sergio lacks any lasting connections or professional opportunities in a place that seems to have moved on. Writing in her book on nostalgia’s role in cinema, Pam Cook admits the psychological inferences behind this inert state, arguing, “Rather than being seen as a reactionary, regressive condition imbued with sentimentality, it can be perceived as a way of coming to terms with the past, as enabling it to be exorcised in order that society, and individuals, can move on” (Cook 4). With an increasingly dire political and social future for Cuba, Sergio can only look back into the past as a means to connect emotionally with his environment. Alea filters audience spectatorship through largely handheld, point-of-view shots from the character’s eye level on the street to invite identification with an estranged, directionless figure. This alignment with a character constantly searching his surroundings and Alea’s emphasis on controlling audience spectatorship evokes a cinema of seeing and stasis because of the character’s inactivity and largely aimless character arc. In Deleuzian terms, Sergio is a seer and not an active agent. He questions aloud, “Have I changed or has the city changed?” and his habitual act of spying with his telescope outside his apartment window exhibits a character left only with the capacity for looking and reflecting, rather than a character with action-oriented goals and active involvement with space.

Aside from surveying from his vantage point or entertaining a book while lounging in his plush imprisonment, Sergio also circuitously tails random women with a joyless, haphazard drive. These purposeless routines throughout his daily life suggest a limbo state that parallels the leftover population still living in Cuba and the useless national political landscape more broadly. Sergio’s admission to his love interest and aspiring actress Elena, “The only thing an actress does is repeat the same movements and the same words thousands of times,” plainly evokes the current counter-productivity of a land lacking the initiative of its people. Tomás Gutiérrez Alea then proceeds to display a number of edited clips from existing movies with the footage repeated over and over again to make this point absolutely clear. Incessantly repeated gestures and dialogue from these selected movies conjure a hellish limbo that audiences must watch without reprieve. These clips are revealed in the ensuing scene to be the censored cuts from films spliced by the Revisory Commission following the events of the socialist revolution. Alea’s inclusion of found footage material underlines his interest in history. Indeed, Carole Goodman’s observation on the materiality of Cuban film history emphasizes the importance of existing physical media as a means to revisit the past, maintaining, “A culture is documented through its material production. As the culture shifts, this material evidence remains as the only means of reconstructing its past” (Goodman 22). Nevertheless, Sergio remains in a hopeless position even with his frequent musings of the past, and Elena concludes that if he is neither a revolutionary nor a counterrevolutionary, he is merely “nothing.” Lacking any sense of individual identity and disentangled from the present reality, Sergio portends the indefinite status of Cuba itself.

Cuba Without Future

Not only does Alea allegorize the aimless narrative of Sergio to suggest the indeterminate status of the country trailing from the political and social upheaval in the 1960s, he also situates Cuba within a temporal-spatial zone caught between the worlds of this pre-revolutionary past and unclear future. What follows in this section is a more thorough investigation of the Cuban setting and the ultimate regression into nostalgia that characters face in relation to this locale. The movie ties a specific space and a specific sense of time from the beginning, identifying Havana, Cuba, in the year 1961 as a definite setting. Cuba represents a self-contained island trapped in the past, and Alea notes in intertitles how “many people have left the country.” Thus, movement is tied to temporality; departing from Cuba suggests moving forward in time and not staying rooted in a place without future.

Alea introduces his setting in the opening scene with handheld images of fast-paced musical revelry, and this scene establishes an underlying collision between movement and stasis that lies at the heart of the film. These introductory images have a documentarian, neorealist style as though Alea simply brought out his camera to the outside street to film non-actors enjoying a real curbside fiesta. Largely filmed in close-ups and medium close-ups, the camera appears to drown within the merriment, and moving limbs and bodies often block the shot. When a man is shot and killed, the initial events continue with only a few bystanders pausing to witness the bloodshed, establishing a tension between movement and stasis amidst violent change. The handheld camerawork produces very shaky, raw footage as though the murder that occurs is un-staged and incidentally filmed. Alea films bodies blocking our view of the murdered victim, and the gaze of the camera is similar to that of a bystander disarticulated from the reality that surrounds them. This notion is important because it establishes prevailing themes throughout the film regarding the disruption of Cuban society and daily life. Despite the bloody scene that unfolds, the spirit of the party appears unperturbed by this violence, and Alea’s rhythmic images assume disregard towards change and the party continues. These rapid images embody a far cry from the largely uneventful, reserved narrative of Sergio to follow. Consequently, this opening scene feels almost dreamlike, especially because it bears little if any relation to the ensuing narrative. The final freeze frame close-up of a partygoer breaking the fourth wall is swept out of time, isolated from the continuous movement of this sequence and anticipating Alea’s use of still photography as a narrative device and remembrance of historic events.

The country itself is both a geographical and temporal island, a kind of no-where place similar to Siah Darreh of Abbas Kiarostami’s film and similarly isolated from the rapidly changing social and political climates outside its borders. Sergio calls Cuba an “underdeveloped island” and Havana a “country town,” further indicating its regression to a simpler, archaic state and not a modern place like the bourgeois metropolitan areas he admires. The character even directly likens himself to the tropics of the Cuban landscape, admitting, “Here everything matures and rots easily. Nothing endures.” Lacking a promising future and constructed with a nostalgic, imaginary sense of the past, Cuba exists in a present state of uncertainty and disarticulation, out of touch with time.

The eponymous “memories of underdevelopment” are the memories of Cuba before the revolution and the mass exodus of residents from the country, and characters frequently allude to this status as the identifying aspect of the country. The term also carries economic implications, suggesting pre-revolutionary Cuba’s inferior industrial development and its aforementioned status within the Third World. Sergio voices Cuba’s “inability to relate to things …  to accumulate experience and to develop,” personally associating the term underdevelopment with an inconsistency or inability to sustain an idea without it falling apart. One of the ways Alea envisions this disconnect is through an audio-visual rupture when he presents images of moving lips without words or still photographs with accompanying voiceover, suggesting the disarticulation across peoples in Cuba. Voiceover narration involves images looking back at the past juxtaposed with a voice emanating from the present day, indicating a temporal confusion between past and present. Sergio also plays audio recordings in his apartment that inversely deliver voices from the past with images of the present, further cementing this audio-visual disconnect. Like the still frames of French filmmaker Chris Marker’s 1962 short La Jetée, a French New Wave film that the Cuban film institutes would have screened in the early 1960s, Alea employs still imagery as a device to highlight themes of temporality and looking back at the past. Indeed, Memories of Underdevelopment closely resembles La Jetée because Alea visually expresses entire backstories in still images with thoughtful voiceover narration guiding the narrative. Moreover, as in La Jetée’s inclusion of a museum setting with objects encased behind glass frozen in time, Memories of Underdevelopment also includes a museum setting that calls attention to Cuba’s static condition. However, the locales of Alea’s film ultimately feel less like a time capsule and more like a mausoleum, deadened and derelict.

The use of flashbacks offers a glimpse of Cuba before the flight of many citizens, and Sergio in the present day longs to recapture this nostalgia in any way possible. When he attempts to give Elena his wife’s old clothes to model – echoing Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 movie Vertigo and its protagonist’s similar reconstruction of the past through costuming – the past flirts with the present despite Elena’s initial discomfort at these gestures. Again, Alea’s architectural mise-en-scène comprised of tight framing in doorways and blank empty walls convey interpersonal and even temporal estrangement in this scene. Sergio and Elena seem to have minds occupying different time zones; Sergio is stuck longing for a nonexistent past while Elena belongs to a budding young future. Alea’s shot/reverse shot editing schema visualizes this disconnect, with both characters initially occupying separate spaces in the frame before slowly coming together under Sergio’s bossy terms. This scene provides a rare instance where Sergio appears driven and energetic, brought about when the possibility to reconstruct the past lies at hand. He enthusiastically entertains his guest with coffee while Elena appears far less interested, plopping on his couch and aimlessly scanning her environment.

The scene centralizes themes of constructing identity and historical politics, and when Elena comments that Sergio is neither “revolutionary nor counterrevolutionary,” in essence, without identity, she concludes that he’s merely “nothing.” In contrast, the purposeless Sergio aims to impose an identity onto Elena. He offers his separated wife’s clothing to model, and Elena appears markedly troubled by Sergio’s desire to revisit his wife’s left behind belongings. They kiss, but not without Elena initially pulling away and crying. Alea films Sergio as a domineering, outright menacing character in this scene, slowly stalking forward when Elena playfully retreats. Sergio appears desperate to recapture the flame in his past life, even if it means building an artificial semblance of what it used to look like. Furthermore, Alea follows this scene with a flashback with similar visual language, one in which he films Sergio’s oppressive eyeline match looking downward as he slowly stalks towards his terrified wife. The transition into flashback wherein he relives a traumatic argument he had with his wife when she admitted her desire to leave him and the country behind links the emigration to a kind of personal spousal betrayal. Thus, leaving Cuba becomes a traitorous, immoral act of personal stake for a character like Sergio, and he is left to reckon with the aftermath of this inflated betrayal.

Even Sergio’s close friend Pablo leaves the country, declaring, “Everybody knows what’s going to happen here,” but clueless remnants like Sergio claim ignorance over the future because of their nostalgic preoccupation with an imagined, wistful past. Sergio longs for a Eurocentric, bourgeois Cuba even though this kind of place is at death’s doorstep with the revolutionary turmoil, an illusion rooted in a mythic past. Instead, people like Elena underscore a sense of underdevelopment for people like Sergio, calling attention to the temporal ruptures present in Cuba. Elena occupies another world, a temporal register out of step with Sergio’s subjective vision of reality. She doesn’t appreciate his ways because she’s considered “underdeveloped,” or rooted to a pre-revolutionary Cuba out of touch with increasing industrial demands, but it’s Sergio who lacks any concrete foundations in everyday life and instead uselessly waxes nostalgic like a fading relic without much time remaining.

Beyond Cuba

Memories of Underdevelopment offers a political take on temporality by situating its setting and characters in an adrift status unsure of its future under changing government and consequently thinking back on history to find clarity. This temporal division produces a present locked in stasis, again producing characters robbed of activity and reduced to passive spectators. Stylistic choices such as the inclusion of found footage and still photography, isolating long takes and shots, and on-location shooting in a deserted Cuban landscape are not only aesthetic, but politically-minded choices. This tension between aesthetics and politics emerges in Alea’s conception of temporality in cinema, and he envisions a surreal, inexact world unsure of its own sense of time, purpose, and history. This increased, conscious stylization alongside political motivations certainly fits in the turbulent decade of the 1960s. Put into a broader consideration of global art cinema beyond Latin America, meticulous aesthetic strategies and filmmaking techniques can emphasize the political commentary put forth by the filmmaker.

Now that we’ve examined Alea’s film in detail and how temporality is presented or addressed in terms of international art cinema, we gain an understanding of the aesthetic and political ambitions that motivate this filmmaker. Alienating effects can rouse audiences towards conscious mindfulness of the images before them, allowing for amplified political and social criticism beyond mere aesthetic ploys. These strategies are especially pertinent in late 1960s cinema and onward, opening room for an investigation on the intersection of film form and urgent political discourse. By looking at these cultural contexts, we are able to appreciate an alternate reading of cinema that often goes unheeded. Although critics and filmgoers may not be fully aware of the culturally specific contexts of this work apart from dominant, primarily Western theorizations, this investigation of temporality contends that Alea’s film cannot be read so transparently, and that broader perspective captures a more authentic mindset equipped to experience this film.


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