“That’s a symptom of underdevelopment: the inability to relate things, to gain experience, develop.”
To say that Memorias del subdesarrollo (1968) is a unique offering to the global cinema is perhaps an understatement. This film by Tomas Gutierrez Alea is one of Cuba’s best known and most critically acclaimed films, renowned for its blending of narrative filmmaking and documentary footage of Cuba’s revolution. It also happens to be one of my favorite films, though I have a deep and profound dislike for the protagonist.
This film is a unique experience, the stitching of a narrative through a collage of Cuba as a country and Sergio (Sergio Corrieri) as a man. The montages using documentary footage – shot by Alea himself – are accompanied by the pretentious musings of Sergio via voice over.
Sergio is the picture of privilege, the paradigm of disaffected pseudo-intellectuals with an air of self-imposed importance. He is white passing, a handsome and comfortably middle class man. This privileged position may explain his desire to be a writer and an intellectual on par with ‘the Europeans’. The irony is thick as he and his fellow white passing intellectuals speak on the discrimination against Cubans in the global sphere, all while being waited on by darker skinned and black Cubans is baffling. For Sergio, there is a sense of superiority to his peers and inferiority to eurocentric ideologies and moderns philosphes. This tangled web plays out throughtout the film, through scenes with Sergio and documentary montage.
“Here women look at your eyes, as if your gaze could touch them.”
There is a common thread throughout the film of Sergio using women, either to entertain himself or to give meaning in his life. The camera follows women in stores, at the pool, across the street, with a voyeuristic and judgmental gaze. The film is split into parts, and each part is defined by his relationship to a woman in his life – his now ex-wife, his maid, his childhood sweetheart and Elena. His relationship with femininity is inherently linked to his eurocentric ideology of what it means to exist and to have worth. There are deeply disturbing scenes that reveal his true nature with women – one of the very first scenes is of an interaction between Sergio and his ex-wife. She is a beautiful woman, but he records her without her consent, and mocks her to the point of tears for his own entertainment. She calls him a monster, and he just laughs. This is exemplary of the lack of care and the transgressive behavior towards the feminine in the film.
The main relationship is that with Elena (Daisy Granados). She is a young aspiring actress who Sergio manipulates and leads on, only to literally abandon her at a tour of Hemmingway’s home. He steadily ignores and avoids her until he is accused of raping her and brought into court by her family. His relationship with Elena is incredibly uncomfortable to watch. She is a toy to him, an object of sexual desire to project his toxic ideology of superiority onto. He gives Elena his ex-wife’s clothes to wear, the style of which invokes the idea of a well-to-do American housewife. Only his childhood sweetheart, who is the only European woman in the film, has ever measured up to his standards. Nothing about Cuba nor Cuban women can measure up. By the end of the film, not even he can meet his own standards.
This film at its center is a clear indictment on the apolitical Cuban bourgeoisie during the revolution, framed through Sergio’s relationships with women and the documentary footage sprinkled throughout. Its message still resonates today. Privilege is a universal truth. Every time I have watched this film, I have cursed at Sergio on the screen because he truly is the worst sort of person. He is priveleged, able to live selfishly with little thought for others unless it’s to belittle them. He reaches some level of self-awareness by the end, but this is not enough to motivate him to change. There are parallels drawn throughout the film between Sergio and Hemmingway as shining examples of persons who may be associated with Cuba, but have never cared for or done anything to help Cuba.
This film is not happy, but it is striking. As the fifty odd years have passed since its release, its message has only become more relevant and necessary to see.