Cross-Cultural Film Guide/ Patricia Aufderheide
The American University/ ©1992
Plot: The film opens with a nighttime carnaval scene, in which someone gets hurt and is lifted out of the crowd, a dramatic contrast with the interior nature of the film. After the title, we meet Sergio (Sergio Corrieri, a leading Cuban actor), the one-time owner of a furniture store that has been seized by the revolution, bidding goodbye to his wife and parents, who are part of the bourgeois exodus for Miami. Sergio, who can live off the proceeds of his confiscated store, returns home to take up his vocation as a writer. But he finds himself isolated from the central action of the day, revolutionary change. He goes through his wife's closet, and peers out through a telescope at the city below. Sergio is an indecisive spectator on life, represented by sequences rich in documentary footage. He muses cynically about the contradictions of underdevelopment, and on outings idly girl-watches. But Sergio is not like his friend Pablo, with whom he disagrees politically in a discussion of the Bay of Pigs invasion (also illustrated with documentary footage).
Cut off from the world, Sergio attempts to re-enter through relations with women. Having fantasized unproductively about the maid, he picks up Elena (Daysi Granados, a leading actress and wife of another leading Cuban director, Pastor Vega). She is an aspiring actress, with dreams Sergio also ironically comments on (illustrated by movie clips). He seduces her, and she leaves upset.
Bidding goodbye to Pablo as well, Sergio finds in himself contempt for bourgeois escapism, and decides to play a Pygmalion role with Elena. They go together to Erenest Hemingway's house, where he becomes disgusted with her crassness and the filmmaker reveals ironies in the Hemingway myth. The self-questioning mode of the film is reinforced by an introjected documentary scene of writers arguing about the role of the novel.
Elena's family comes indignant to Sergio's house, threatening to press charges; their presence contrasts with his reverie of a Jewish refugee girl with whom he was once in love.
The film ends with Sergio unable to act, while the city gears up for self-defense during the Cuban Missile Crisis. In his last statement, he says, "This island is a trap. We're very small, and too poor. It's an expensive dignity."
Style: Gutierrez Alea deftly mixes documentary, fantasy and fiction narrative in a film that takes the viewer inside the mind of a man caught between capitalist and revolutionary worlds. The construction of the film and its structure as a meditation are evident, among other things, in its bold use of intertitles to signal new moments and themes; its interpolation of related material that comments on but is not integral to the plot; and in its use of meditative voice-over.
Background on director/film: Tomas Gutierrez Alea was one of the founders of the Cuban Institute for the Arts and Science of Cinema (ICAIC), and has been a leading figure ever since, primarily as an innovative director but also as a theorist. He had gained practical experience before the revolution working on short news clips; he also studied at the Centro Sperimentale in Rome, founded by the neorealists. He also had worked with Julio Garcia Espinosa, later to become vice minister of culture, on a short documentary on the harsh life of charcoal workers (El Megano, 1955). His first work in ICAIC was documentary and docudrama on revolutionary subjects. Memories was preceded, among other films, by two savagely funny and undogmatic comedies, The Twelve Chairs and Death of a Bureaucrat. He decided to try Memories, a challenging film, knowing that Death of a Bureaucrat had been a smash hit and he could ride on its success. Gutierrez Alea went on to make films at several-year intervals, each an exploration of the theme of social change under the revolution and each an exploration of cinematic language. A staunch supporter of the revolution, he has not been dogmatic in his own art. He has achieved his own place for work partly by drawing competent people to him and operating as an autonomous sub-unit within ICAIC.
Memories of Underdevelopment was taken from a novel by Edmundo Desnoes, a renowned novelist who for many years since has lived in New York but nonetheless has quietly supported the revolution. The film evolved in the process of filming, although Desnoes and Gutierrez Alea jointly worked on a screenplay. Desnoes found the film very different from his conception, but not violating it. The novel had been entirely subjective, while the film archly contrasts Sergio's vision with exterior versions. In an interview with Argentine journalist Silvia Oroz (in Gutierrez Alea: Os films que nao filmei, Rio de Janeiro: Editor Anima, 1985) Gutierrez Alea said that the goal of the film was to foster self-criticism on the part of the spectator. "Sergio is not someone to imitate--he lacks a series of obvious virtues--but he is contradictory, and because of that the spectator first identifies with him and then questions him. His attitudes accord with values of the dominant society until the revolution: he is a petit-bourgeois who dresses well, has a good apartment, pretty women, a certain level of education. Because of this, first there's an identification, which slowly transforms into criticism, because of the interrogations--divorced from any participation--that he makes of reality...The important thing is this movement, not only distanciation or identification."
Film production context: ICAIC is the only fully nationalized film industry in Latin America. Beginning with newsreel production, it became a center within which some 40-50 documentaries and 3-6 features a year were made--an impressive amount for a small (10 million) population. ICAIC also handles film importation, and brings in hundreds of films, either for release or in festivals, a year for the Cuban public, which has a hungry appetite for cinema. It also runs an annual film festival that showcases the entire production of Latin American film from the previous year. It has been a site of incalculable importance for cineastes all over Latin America, who have used its facilities for production and post-production and depended on the annual festival as a site of exchange and as a marketplace. ICAIC was instrumental in fostering two other Cuba-based (but not exclusively Cuban) film institutions: an international film school and the Foundation for New Latin American Cinema, headed by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and dedicated to fostering co-productions.
The film institute has weathered issues of censorship from the start, notably in 1961, when after the suppression of a film made by Sabra Cabrera Infante, not a supporter of the revolution, was shelved, Fidel Castro issued a dictum,"Within the revolution everything; against it, nothing." Perhaps as important as political control from the Party in shaping the institute's history has been its small size and the tight control over its direction from the small group of founders. In recent years the institute has, like every other Cuban institution, suffered economic duress. It has attempted, with some success, to reinvigorate the creativity of its early years with a reorganization that puts more control in the hands of key directors rather than bureaucrats. But Cuba's increasing political and economic isolation are hard on artists as on others, not only in terms of physical resources but also in terms of discovering and shaping issues, subjects and modes of address.
Importance: The film, which was heralded widely in Cuba and became an award-winning film in festivals, quickly became an international favorite. Internationally and particularly in the U.S., it was widely seen and, according to the director, misinterpreted as a critique of the revolution. It is significant not only for its theme but for its creative approach to the representation of subjectivity.
Julianne Burton, Cinema and Social Change in Latin America: Conversations with filmmakers, Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986
Michael Chanan, The Cuban Image, Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1985
Tomas Gutierrez Alea, "The Viewer's Dialectic, Part I," in Coco Fusco, ed., Reviewing Histories: Selections from New Latin American Cinema, Buffalo, NY: Hallwalls, 1987.
Tomas Gutierrez Alea and Edmundo Desnoes, Memories of Underdevelopment and Inconsolable Memories, New Brunswck and London: Rutgers University Press, 1990.
John King, Magical Reels: A History of Cinema in Latin America, London: Verso, 1990
Last updated on September 17, 1996
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