One of the Greatest Films Ever Made Is Back on the Big Screen

Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s “Memories of Underdevelopment” is as essential as cinema gets


Cuban director Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s Memories of Underdevelopment, from 1968, is one of the greatest pictures ever made, and it’s screening in a new restoration at Film Forum that you shouldn’t miss. Don’t be surprised, however, if what you’re watching doesn’t always look brand-new, or slick, or clean. Though fictional, Alea’s film mixes a variety of forms, incorporating both documentary footage shot by the director on the streets of Havana as well as archival historical images. As such, it’s also often purposefully grainy, washed-out, imperfect. Alternating between immediacy and reflection, fantasy and honesty, lyricism and horror, Memories of Underdevelopment feels like it’s being created before our very eyes.

Alea’s protagonist is a bourgeois named Sergio (Sergio Corrieri) who’s chosen to stay behind in Cuba, even as those close to him have already departed for the U.S. in the wake of the 1959 Revolution; the film takes place between the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion and the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Early on, we see a tense farewell between Sergio and his wife, after which he reflects on how different her life will be in the U.S., where she’ll finally be forced to work to survive. But Sergio’s refusal to leave doesn’t stem from any kind of solidarity with the revolution. It’s rooted instead in a kind of existential lethargy. “Nothing has changed,” he remarks, looking at people cavorting by the pool of his well-appointed apartment complex. He sees statues that have been toppled, which were to be replaced by Picasso sculptures that never actually arrived. (“It’s easy to be a Communist in Paris,” he remarks, bitterly.) He sees Cuba as a land not in the midst of epochal transformation but suffering from a decay and moral inconsistency he associates with economic and social underdevelopment. People need to survive; they have no time for the books and artworks that he’s surrounded himself with.

Much of the tension in Alea’s film comes from the contrast between the depravity of Sergio’s actions and the nuance of his thoughts as expressed in voiceover. In the privacy of his home, he wraps his wife’s old panty hose over his head. Later, he fantasizes about his housekeeper after she tells him about her baptism; he envisions it as some sort of hot, wet, sexually suggestive scenario. He picks up a young, working-class woman, Elena (Daisy Granados), by promising to get her a screen test with a director friend (which he does), then beds her in exchange for some of his wife’s fancy clothes. (Later, the girl’s family attempts to sue him for rape.) Meanwhile, he reflects on the disconnect between Cuba’s intellectuals and its people; its continuing poverty; on the exploitation of the country by the West. Sergio saves special ire for Ernest Hemingway, whose former home is filled with items from places like Spain, the U.S., and Africa, but practically nothing from the island itself. “He was never really interested in Cuba,” he mutters. Of course, Sergio himself doesn’t seem particularly interested in Cuban culture either; his tastes are decidedly aspirational and first world.

Along the way, Alea also gives us lyrical passages about Sergio’s childhood, his early friendships, as well as a long-ago romance with a German émigré that still reverberates in the man’s memories. But we also sometimes hear the sounds of Sergio arguing bitterly with his wife; apparently, he created surreptitious audio recordings of their fights. We are constantly whipsawed between identification and revulsion: At times, Sergio seems very much like the kind of refined person who would go into an art theater to check out a film like Memories of Underdevelopment. Other times, he seems like a privileged monster who just might have a dead body stashed away in a closet.

That is, perhaps, kind of the point. Alea pulls us into Sergio’s psychology so that he can then interrogate our own attitudes; this man appeals to us with his sensible words but his actions are often deeply cruel and selfish. The director understood his audience; educated in Italian film schools, he could appreciate the lovely ennui of Antonioni and the experimental play of Godard, not to mention the moral abysses of Camus and Sartre. At times, his picture recalls the confessional lyricism of Bernardo Bertolucci’s Before the Revolution (1964) — a similar rumination about a young, well-off man’s difficulties reconciling himself with his revolutionary milieu.

But that’s also where the mixture of tones and forms comes in — with the film’s uneasy juxtaposition of documentary and drama, its occasional forays into agitprop, its combination of narrative episodes that alternate between the lyrical and the perverse, its rough, raw passages butting up against professionally shot and edited scenes. The experience of watching Memories is a lot more jarring than anything we might encounter with Bertolucci or Antonioni, or even Godard. By letting the seams show, Alea forces us to reflect on what we’re watching, and our response to it. Early on, when Sergio introduces Elena to his director friend (played by Alea himself), the filmmaker remarks that his new work will be “like a collage, where everything goes,” and it’s quite clear that he’s essentially talking about this particular movie. In an underdeveloped land, Sergio keeps telling us, people and things are inconsistent. But as this beautiful, purposefully inconsistent film shows us, maybe that kind of chaos is what’s required to build a better world, and a better cinema.

Memories of Underdevelopment
Directed by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea
Janus Films
At Film Forum, January 12–25