HAVANA TIMES — Watching Cuban filmmaker Tomas Gutierrez Alea’s legendary Memories of Underdevelopment (1968) with my son, I somewhat cynically mused that the author of the novella on which the film was based, Edmundo Desnoes, could have said much more on the subject – hell, he could have written a whole saga and even a soap opera.
Very few films made so long ago give you the sensation of not having lost one tiny bit of actuality, as this film does. Regrettably, this is not only because some of the concepts explored are universal, but also because the society that was taking shape in the 60s and which the main character observes, feeling increasingly excluded, is the same society we witness in Cuba today. The difference now is that this society does not appear to be “taking shape”, but to be going down like a sinking ship.
I recall that, when I saw the film for the first time years ago, I wondered how it had managed to get past the censors, and was surprised to read that it was meant to reflect “the alienation of a middle-class Cuban who is struggling to adapt to the revolutionary process.” The fact is that I, who live in an overcrowded apartment on the outskirts of Havana, who know nothing other than the modest plate of food, scant clothing and full buses, totally identified with Desnoes’ maladjusted character.
I know a number of people who thought the same way I did. They would smile knowingly and say that reality had proven much harsher than fiction, that it had demonstrated the revolutionary experiment was capable of alienating anyone who wasn’t willing to relinquish their individuality and freedom of thought, no matter what their class.
Subjective takes on the film aside, the fact the streets of Havana’s neighborhood of Vedado, scrutinized by Sergio’s eyes in the film, should look more decadent forty-six years later, that their only surviving glamour should be the buildings constructed by the “class enemy”, casts doubt on the film’s ethical presuppositions.
What would Sergio (or Edumundo Desnoes, who has lived in New York since 1979) say if he strolled down Vedado today and saw the broken up sidewalks, the buildings taken by force from their owners which were never given any maintenance and are entirely run down?
What would he say on seeing and hearing the same slogans, the lewd heterogeneity of social classes, the long lines of people in front of the coffee place on 23 street, in front of the Coppelia ice-cream parlor, the stomping grounds of the city’s homeless and beggars?
I have always said that irony keeps us from exploring things deeply, and that, sometimes, it even dehumanizes us. Today, I will change my tune some and say that Memories of Underdevelopment is a great film and that it is ever more relevant in the changing patterns and relentless dynamic of any society – for evolution continues even in our fall or our apparent stagnation. Stagnant water experiences fermentation and decomposition is a process of internal movement.
Sergio’s story is a profoundly existential search. Those who have seen Miguel Coyula’s Memories of Overdevelopment, inspired by a sequel to the novel also written by Desnoes, know that this character also feels excluded in the midst of the overwhelming development of US society, lost among observations, memories, feelings and day-dreams. Winner of awards at several international film festivals, it is also considered one of the best Cuban films of all times.
Gutierrez’ films can no longer be presented with the same discourse. Forty-six years later, it demonstrates that Sergio wasn’t wrong. The revolution turned out as dysfunctional, non-egalitarian and unfair as the society it sought to replace.