On Tomas Gutierrez Alea’s Memories of Underdevelopment

Irina Pino

Sergio observing Cuba with his telescope in Memories of Underdevelopment.

HAVANA TIMES — A number of taboo issues, such as poverty, homosexuality and transsexuality have been tackled in some of Cuba’s most recent film productions. It is encouraging seeing how many closed doors are being opened, and interesting to note that they never were closed to a filmmaker of the stature of Tomas Gutierrez Alea, who used his intelligence to address political and social issues around us.

In his masterpiece Memories of Underdevelopment, Gutierrez uses a whole range of expressive tools, such as documentary, photo stills and even poetry (Ernesto Cardenal’s “A Prayer for Marilyn Monroe”). Based on a novel by Edmundo Desnoes, the film tells the story of Sergio, a man who stays in Cuba during the exodus of the 1960s, despite the fact that his wife, relatives and friends all leave the country. There, he experiences some important historical events, such as the Missile Crises and the Bay of Pigs Invasion.

Sergio leads a life of sterile activities: he produces nothing, has no aims and becomes a simple observer, using a telescope set up on his balcony to gaze at the world, to judge it with constant mockery. He ends up taking refuge in memories.

He is a skeptic who questions family values. For him, women under the new revolutionary society have lost their elegance, creatures that fall to pieces as they age and become unworthy of one’s attention. His dissatisfaction with the real world around him and his own past make him fence-sit, unable to take any sides. He is sick of himself. Nothing moves him, not even art. His soul is dry as a stick. In a scene at La Vigia ranch, Ernest Hemingway’s place of residence in Cuba, he tells his girlfriend that the author of the Old Man and the Sea was never actually interested in Cuba.

For him, the political slogans and common people who flood the city are fleeting spectacles that will recede to oblivion.

Watching the film so many years after it was made, I have come to see this character in many people I know – they are individuals who don’t care about anything, who live in the shadows like parasites, consuming anything that comes their way and leaving spiritual and moral values, the richness of an education and the ideal of a good world by the wayside. The malleable nature of their existences likewise places them in the “middle.”