Memories of Underdevelopment • I Am Cuba • Third Cinema
Greenscreening Series #37
September 23, 2023
September 23, 2023
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This film by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea is the most renowned work in the history of Cuban cinema. After his wife and family flee in the wake of the Bay of Pigs invasion, the bourgeois intellectual Sergio (Sergio Corrieri) passes his days wandering Havana in idle reflection, his amorous entanglements and political ambivalence gradually giving way to a mounting sense of alienation. With this adaptation of an innovative novel by Edmundo Desnoes, Gutiérrez Alea developed a cinematic style as radical as the times he was chronicling, creating a collage of vivid impressions through the use of experimental editing techniques, archival material, and spontaneously shot street scenes. Intimate and densely layered, Memories of Underdevelopment provides an indictment of its protagonist’s disengagement and an extraordinary glimpse of life in postrevolutionary Cuba. - Criterion
Find Memories of Underdevelopment via Reelgood
You just had to set up your camera in the middle of the street and something interesting would happen. That is how we learned to make movies in Cuba. -Tomás Gutiérrez Alea
In January 1959, after six years of fighting, Fidel Castro and his revolutionary forces toppled Fulgencio Batista's authoritarian regime and established a new revolutionary government in Cuba. This watershed moment in Cuban history signaled the dawn of a new era, characterized by sweeping political, social, and economic changes, and was one of Latin America’s most significant geopolitical events of the 20th Century.
Politically, the revolution resulted in the establishment of a socialist government under the leadership of Fidel Castro, leading Cuba to align itself with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The United States, once a dominant influence in Cuban affairs, severed diplomatic ties and imposed economic sanctions, precipitating a complex geopolitical landscape.
The revolution aimed to address longstanding issues of inequality, illiteracy, and access to healthcare. Land and wealth redistribution sought to diminish the disparities among classes. The revolution encouraged collective efforts to improve the overall quality of life for Cubans, but it also generated tensions, particularly among those who held positions of privilege before the revolution.
Economically, the Cuban Revolution saw the nationalization of key industries, including sugar, tobacco, and tourism. These changes had far-reaching implications for the Cuban economy, with a shift towards a more centrally planned socialist model. Cuba's reliance on Soviet aid and trade further molded its economic trajectory, as did the harsh economic sanctions imposed by the United States.
The revolution also reinvigorated the Cuban film industry. The Castro regime, like other revolutionary governments, understood the power of cinema to shape the national consciousness and further the revolution. They invested heavily in developing a national cinema and ending the domination of Hollywood films in Cuban theaters, ushering in a decade known as the Golden Age of Cuban Cinema, and inspiring other Latin American countries to pursue what became known as the Third Cinema.
Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s Memories of Underdevelopment (1968) is widely considered the greatest film of the Cuban Golden Age and of the Third Cinema movement, capturing the essence of a nation in flux during the aftermath of the Cuban Revolution.
The film follows Sergio, a well-off aspiring writer navigating the labyrinth of a society in profound transition. As a wave of his compatriots, including his wife and middle-class friends, opt for exile, Sergio chooses to remain, trying to forge a path somewhere between a tiresome bourgeois existence and a revolution he doesn’t really understand. Sergio grapples with his own identity and place in post-revolutionary Cuba, as well as troubled relationships with his girlfriends and his failed marriage. The fallout from one of his relationships provides the drama of the second half of the film, but the film is really about Sergio's struggle to love Cuba, and to change for the sake of their relationship.
Memories of Underdevelopment received acclaim from critics around the world - moreso foreign critics than Cuban critics and audiences, who were kind of fed up with the attitudes Sergio expresses throughout the film. The New York Times included Memories in its top 10 films of 1968.
The film's reputation has continued throughout the years. In 2022, critics rated Memories of Underdevelopment 169th in Sight and Sound’s list of the greatest films ever made, tied with The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, along with two films by one of Alea’s heroes, Luis Buñuel.
Gutiérrez Alea was a major influence in Latin American cinema, as well as for several directors who emerged during the 1970s and 80s, including Pedro Almódovar.
Gutiérrez Alea was born in Havana, Cuba, in 1928. He studied law at the University of Havana but soon found his passion in filmmaking.
Prior to the revolution, Cuba was mainly a consumer of films from Hollywood and Mexico, and the Cuban film industry produced very few films of its own. But Cubans loved cinema. At the time of the revolution, Havana had more movie theaters than New York or Paris.
Gutiérrez Alea left Cuba to study filmmaking in Italy, arriving at the height of Neorealism.
As with so many filmmakers in the second half of the 20th Century, Neorealism greatly influenced Gutiérrez Alea’s filmmaking style and ideology, and provided a framework for creating authentically Cuban films.
Gutiérrez Alea directed his first film in 1955, El Megáno, a neorealist documentary about charcoal burners in Havana. The film was banned by the Bautista regime.
After the revolution, Gutiérrez Alea helped establish the ICAIC (Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry), an organization dedicated to promoting the Cuban film industry, and producing and distributing more artistic Cuban films. Gutiérrez Alea continued making documentaries, including one of ICAIC’s first releases, Historia de la Revolución (1959).
With strong backing from the government, the Cuban film industry grew rapidly, and soon released 3-4 films per month.
In the mid-60s, Gutiérrez Alea shifted to narrative film.
For his second narrative film, Alea chose to adapt an experimental short novel by Edmundo Desnoes. But he added a lot to the novel - transforming it into something uniquely cinematic. In fact, Gutiérrez Alea added so much great material to the story that Desnoes added some scenes from the script to subsequent editions of his novel.
Set in the early days of the Cuban Revolution, between the Bay of Pigs invasion and the October Crisis (known in the US as the Cuban Missile Crisis), the film depicts a character wrestling with recent history, shifting social order, and an evolving national identity. At the time of the film’s production and release, nearly a decade had passed since the revolution, and the Castro government was entering maturity and malaise.
Gutiérrez Alea used an innovative blend of narrative and documentary techniques, fiction and fact, to explore the psyche of an individual and a nation.
One of the film's most distinctive features is its skillful blending of documentary and fictional elements. Gutiérrez Alea incorporates real historical footage, such as scenes from the Bay of Pigs invasion, alongside fictional sequences. He even includes cameos featuring himself and Desnoes. The film positions Sergio as a witness to history, connecting his personal narrative to the broader sociopolitical context of Cuba, and emphasizes the interplay between individual experiences and the larger historical backdrop.
But alongside the documentary footage, Gutiérrez Alea uses flashbacks and dream sequences to seamlessly weave together Sergio’s past and present. We glimpse Sergio's memories, fantasies, and inner conflicts, often emerging organically like we saw in Fellini’s 8 1/2. But the blending of documentary footage with the protagonist’s internal processing is unique and makes Memories of Underdevelopment one of the more interesting examples of subjectivity and characterization in cinema, especially for the time. Sergio’s journey coming to terms with the changing Cuban society are both personal and universal.
Gutiérrez Alea’s cinematography is both introspective and observational, reinforcing the film's dual focus on Sergio's inner world and the external reality of Havana. Wide shots of Havana's streets and architecture provide a vivid backdrop to Sergio's journey. These scenes not only establish the city as a character in itself but also symbolize the larger societal changes taking place. The use of long takes immerses viewers in the daily life and energy of Havana, creating a stark contrast with Sergio's internal conflicts and fragmented consciousness.
Around the time Gutierrez Alea made Memories of Underdevelopment, filmmakers around Latin America were searching for more authentic expression in cinema in the wake of revolutionary fervor.
After the Cuban Revolution, similar leftist movements sprang up throughout Latin America. While none had the success of Cuba’s socialist revolution, much of the region wrestled with leftist revolution and right wing repression, and filmmakers wrestled with ways to shake off the Western dominance in their film industries.
Filmmakers in Argentina coined the term “Third Cinema” to describe the need to rethink cinema. In their definition, the First Cinema was Hollywood-driven commercial filmmaking. The Second Cinema was European Art Cinema, which rejected Hollywood’s commercialism, but focused on the individual artist - the auteur. Third Cinema would reject both notions: neither commercial nor focused on artistic expression, but instead focused on appealing to the masses and inspiring revolutionary sentiment. At the extreme, Third Cinema would even reject theatrical distribution in order to escape the commercial model and avoid censorship; films would be shown in more improvised community spaces, or underground theaters.
While a bit more theoretical than relatable to our experience as contemporary moviegoers, we can distill a few distinctives.
First, Third Cinema sought to shake off the cultural imperialism of the dominant modes of filmmaking and exhibition - films weren’t commercial enterprises or escapist entertainment, but tools of inspiration and intellectual exercises. The goal was also to resist the import of foreign influence and ideals and instead promote homegrown cinematic expression.
Second, Third Cinema looked to make spectatorship more interactive. Audiences were supposed to engage with the material and participate in discussions after the films. As a result, Third Cinema filmmakers had a different kind of respect for their audiences; films could embrace ambiguity, complexity, and reality.
Lastly, Third Cinema was about risk and revolution. In many Latin American countries, US-backed governments imposed harsh censorship and repression to stifle leftist revolutionary movements. Third Cinema would turn moviegoing into an act of rebellion. Filmmakers and audiences would both share in the risk and resist the authorities.
Gutiérrez Alea is typically cited as a Third Cinema director, and Memories of Underdevelopment is considered one of the masterpieces of Third Cinema.
Before we close, we must pause for a second to discuss the legendary Soviet-Cuba co-production I Am Cuba (1964).
The Soviet and Cuban governments gave director Mikhail Kalatozov nearly infinite resources to create a film about the revolutionary spirit. Kalatozov’s 1957 film, The Cranes are Flying, had won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. He used thousands of extras and filmed in Cuba for nearly 14 months.
The resulting film is a series of 4 episodes depicting the suffering of the Cuban people in Bautista’s Cuba, culminating in the swelling of revolutionary zeal as the characters are left no choice but to fight.
I Am Cuba is one of the strangest films I’ve ever seen. It mixes propaganda with melodrama, questionable audio production decisions with absolutely stunning cinematography, pacing that alternates between glacial and thrilling. A film with grand vision and almost infinite resources behind it, but one in which the filmmakers skimped on some obvious elements. A film that cares deeply about its subject - Cuba - but puts little to no effort in fleshing out any Cubans.
In most prints of the film, the audio is dubbed twice - once in Spanish and once in Russian. When I first saw this film in college, it was with the dual-dubbing. Several other students walked out during the screening. Recently, there was a release without the Russian overdubbing, so hopefully if you decide to watch this film you’ll get the Spanish-only version.
The film contains some of the most amazing cinematography you will ever see. In one shot, the camera tracks through a poolside party at a Cuban casino hotel, and for a brief moment jumps into the pool. Kalatozov used handheld cameras during scenes of chaos, taking the audience into the characters' perspective. Kalatozov used infrared film for some scenes, which inverts the black and white shades of the sky, clouds, and ground into something unearthly, haunting, and almost psychedelic.
The most famous scene is a three-minute tracking shot which cranes high above a Havana street as a martyred student’s body as it’s carried through a crowd of revolutionaries. The camera moves in ways that defy physics, and was apparently created by choreographing dozens of crew members passing the camera to the next person. It’s easily one of the greatest shots ever achieved in cinema.
The film tanked in both Cuba and the USSR, and wasn’t shown in Western countries until after the fall of the Soviet Union. Partially due to interest in Kalatozov as an auteur filmmaker, there was some renewed interest in the rest of his ouvre. In the mid-1990s, after a few screenings at film festivals, Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola championed a restoration of the film. While it hasn’t been included in the canon of great films, I Am Cuba has wowed film enthusiasts ever since.
If you’re not interested in dedicating two-and-a-half hours to what is admittedly kind of a slog, please do watch the tracking shot on YouTube. Also consider watching the first ten minutes or so on YouTube (thankfully without Russian dubbing.)
Gutiérrez Alea was a tremendously gifted filmmaker. Pay attention to the cinematic techniques he uses throughout the film, all in service of the key themes of the film. Three of these include:
Frequently framing Sergio in isolation, emphasizing his emotional distance from the bustling streets and people of Havana. This framing technique reinforces Sergio's sense of alienation and serves as a visual representation of his internal struggles.
Sergio’s telescope is a means to distance him from his fellow Cubans and the revolutionary activities happening around him.
Repetition, whether it’s the same shot of a location with something new occurring (e.g. the government taking over a business), or the same event shown from a different perspective. Sergio, our lens to seeing the events of the film, is proven an unreliable narrator, even as we see history unfolding around him; Gutiérrez Alea seems to question our own ability to understand the present and our own reliability to remember the past.
Sergio's relationships with women provide more color to Sergio’s relationship with post-revolution Cuban society, and a lens to examine broader societal attitudes toward women, masculinity, and sexuality in post-revolutionary Cuba.
Laura, Sergio's estranged wife, represents a connection to the past and the bourgeois lifestyle that Sergio once enjoyed, and his alienation from Laura mirrors his discomfort with the pre-revolutionary world.
Sergio's relationship with the young woman, Elena, reflects his interest in the revolution and the new Cuba. But Elena's disinterest in his intellectual and cultural pursuits frustrates him. After a while, all she does is remind him of the issues holding back Cuba as an underdeveloped nation. This relationship is problematic, and a vehicle for Gutiérrez Alea to examine gender relationships and power dynamics in postwar Cuba.
Memories of Underdevelopment: Imaging History essay by Joshua Jelly-Shaprio for the Criterion edition of the film.
The Astonishing Images of I Am Cuba: Essay by George E. Turner in American Cinematographer about the film, with lots of helpful gifs and clips.
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