Classic Film Club: 'Memories of Underdevelopment'

Each week Tom Huddleston watches a classic film he's never seen before. The rules are simple: each film must be considered a masterpiece and each must be completely new to him. This week: Tomas Guttierez Alea's 'Memories of Underdevelopment'

Some films are so packed with incident, insight and overall substance that it requires multiple viewings to process everything that’s been covered. Such a film would pose a natural challenge for this column, which by its very nature is intended to showcase first reactions to popularly feted classics. Luckily, despite all appearances to the contrary, Tomas Guttierez Alea’s revolutionary masterpiece ‘Memories of Underdevelopment’ isn’t one of those movies. True, it has content to spare, both in terms of character depth and political complexity, but somehow Alea presents his narrative– and his case– with such simplicity, such an open eyed (and open hearted) willingness to connect, that however much information the film loads onto the viewer, somehow it all remains comprehensible.

The film takes place in the period between the Bay of Pigs in 1961 and the ensuing missile crisis, when the Cuban revolution was freshly minted and flush with newborn optimism and openness. It focuses on Sergio (Sergio Corrieri), a man of bourgeois upbringing whose equally privileged friends and family– including his largely estranged wife– are abandoning the island for the capitalist paradise across the sea. Sergio elects to stay, despite his faintly arrogant dismissal of his own country as ‘underdeveloped’, in a third world sort of way. His reasons for remaining are complex, shifting, unclear even to himself: is he genuinely keen to see where the new optimism might lead, or is he just hanging on to the block of flats that provide his sole source of income? Can he become a functioning member of the new society, or is he just a redundant leech sucking off the masses?

Alea never presents concrete answers to these questions, but he examines each one soberly and expansively. Sergio is a fascinating central figure. He can be very likeable, as in his initially charming romance of the teenage Elena (Daisy Granados), or his wistful remembrances of lost loves and time past. But he can also be horribly self involved and pitiful, despairing of his place in the world but unwilling to act positively to change his political status. He dismisses his wife’s petty bourgeois opinions and aspirations, but still seeks to transform Elena into a carbon copy: when this doesn’t work, he becomes bored and drifts away.

Alea employs a broad variety of cinematic techniques to communicate his intentions, both political and narrative. He brings in still photography, newsreel footage, taped recordings and television, meetings and interviews and a gorgeously applied black and white photographic palette. But these stylistic tics never feel overused or inappropriate: a sequence in which Sergio’s filmmaker friend outlines his plan to use old, corrupt Batista-era pornographic film footage for a new radical project employs vivid flash editing and random jump cuts to jarring, unnerving effect.

Arguably the most notable aspect of ‘Memories of Underdevelopment’, and the trait which initially endeared it to non-radical Western audiences, is its criticism of the Castro regime, both implied and explicit. A staunch revolutionary, Alea nonetheless attempted to analyse without emotion the real effects of the changes affecting his country. By the time the film was made in 1968, the increasingly despotic reality of Castro’s initially populist regime was making itself clear, and Alea doesn’t hesitate to depict the roots of this development, in the soldiers on the streets, in the party officials who come to question Sergio about his assets, in the confused, conflicted assertions of the Communist advocates attempting to plan the future of a nation through endless argument and counterargument.

Memories of Underdevelopment’ is a dazzling piece of work, not just for its political bravery and relentlessly challenging outlook. It’s also a sly and witty but still heartfelt character study, with moments of real warmth glittering amid the revolutionary rubble. With the phrase ‘developing country’ now arbitrarily applied to approximately two thirds of the globe, Alea’s clear-sighted examination of what it means to be ‘developed’, both personally and politically, feels more apposite than ever. That he also manages to tackle questions of what it means to be successful in that same context, what it means to be free, to be aware, to be alive, simply confirms his film as one of the true greats of radical cinema.

Author: Tom Huddleston





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