It is 1961, and the middle classes of Cuba are in flight. Tomas Gutierrez Alea’s 1968 film opens with an airport crowded with people leaving for Miami. The word “Exit” stamped on their passports makes it clear they will not be back. Sergio, on the other hand, stays behind – caught between the bourgeois lifestyle he has grown weary of and a Cuba whose revolution he seems not to understand. His own dilemmas are personal and sexual. His life, living on rents from his properties after the expropriation of his family furniture store, is essentially tedious.
This sense of a man living in a kind of vacuum reflects the moment in which the film is set. In April 1961 the US-backed Bay of Pigs invasion had failed; the documentary footage of the time plays on the television in Sergio’s penthouse apartment. Yet he sees himself as uninvolved. Watching the city from his high vantage point through a telescope he says that “nothing has changed”. The problem is, of course, that he has not moved but the world – his world – is changing.
The film is based on a novel by Edmundo Desnoes whose title would be better translated as “Memoirs of Underdevelopment”. Desnoes himself appears in a scene from a seminar on literature and revolution whose topic is the question of underdevelopment.
Sergio, the protagonist, is scathing about his own culture; Havana used to be a Caribbean Paris, people said, with its clubs and music and consumer culture. Now it’s just another Third World capital. But Sergio, although he has decided to stay, still sees his own society through a first world lens. The long visit to Hemingway’s house on the island (now a museum) shows us the exotic version of Cuba that the first world (and Sergio) still held to. Yet things are changing, and sooner or later the luxury of existing in a vacuum ceases to be an option. The Missile Crisis of 1962, on which the film ends, leaves no room for vacillation.
The novel ends with a monologue that explores his new situation, his need to choose. The film ends more ambiguously.
Memories of Underdevelopment is the best example of the creative and original cinema coming out of Cuba in the mid-1960s. It uses the combination of narrative, documentary and still photographs that defined what was called the “urgent cinema” of Santiago Alvarez and others. It is witty and irreverent, and happy to make jokes at cinema’s own expense even in a serious exploration of the relationship between individuals and the society in which they live. The film itself is probably the best answer to Sergio’s doubts as to whether the Third World is capable of producing its own original thoughts and visions.
When we opposed the National Front
An imagined revolt in Port Talbot