Memories of Underdevelopment (in Spanish: Memorias del Subdesarrollo) is a 1968 Cuban film written and directed by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, based on a novel by Edmundo Desnoes. A fascinating film that combines introspective, moody drama with newsreel footage of the Cuban Revolution to create a kind of impressionistic patchwork, effectively putting the viewer inside the mind of the protagonist—who also narrates—it’s recently been painstakingly restored, and is now available on Blu-Ray from Mr. Bongo (there are rumors of a Criterion edition, but the Mr. Bongo version is all-region, so why wait? Get it from Amazon now).
The movie’s plot, which is fairly minimal, revolves around Sergio Carmona Mendoyo (Sergio Corrieri), a bourgeois wannabe writer living on revenue from a business he inherited, who chooses to remain in Cuba after the Revolution, although his parents and his wife escape to Miami. Left alone in a lavish European-style apartment full of abstract art and heavy furniture that’s totally unsuited to the tropical heat, he broods, tells himself how happy he is to be left alone to create (though he never actually does much writing), and indulges religiously themed sexual fantasies about his housekeeper. He meets a young woman, Elena (Daisy Granados), on the street and brings her home, where he gives her some of his ex-wife’s dresses and tries to get her interested in art and culture, without success. In one amazing sequence, he takes her on a tour of Ernest Hemingway’s former home, and her boredom practically drips off the screen.
When Sergio gets bored with Elena and tries to ghost her—he sneaks into his building, but she sees him and rings his doorbell at length before leaving—she runs to her family and accuses him of rape. Since she’s a teenager, he’s brought up on trial. At this point, the movie becomes a social satire almost worthy of Pedro Almodóvar. Throughout the movie, Sergio’s narration is bitter and dismissive of the Cuban Revolution; he sees his country as “underdeveloped” and has little faith in its future, and the news footage Alea inserts, with Castro’s compatriots arguing that none of the crimes that took place were their fault, serves to support his point in some ways, but he still comes off like a smug, self-satisfied asshole. We repeatedly hear a recording he made of his ex-wife without her knowledge; when she figures out she’s being taped, she responds with rage, and it’s hard not to see her point. As he sits in court, Sergio thinks how unjust it is that a guy like him would be brought to trial at all, and how insane it is that Elena’s parents, who are so obviously beneath him (her mother is fat, her father wears a bad suit and thick glasses, and her brother, who came to Sergio’s apartment to threaten him, is a dark-skinned, greasy-haired thug, and Alea films them like cartoon characters), are now, post-revolution, viewed as valuable members of society, rather than the rabble they so obviously are.
Memories of Underdevelopment is a fantastic movie from multiple angles. It’s often hilariously funny; Sergio is a compelling character precisely because of his many glaring flaws; it’s beautifully shot; and the portrait it paints of Cuba in the early 1960s is sometimes brutal, sometimes depressing, but complex and honest. (One fascinating sequence takes place at a panel discussion, where Desnoes is one of the panelists and Living Theatre playwright Jack Gelber asks a valid question, wondering how a panel discussion can be considered a revolutionary act.) Though it’s 50 years old, it’s much more than a time capsule, and is both thoughtful and highly entertaining.