Cuban director Tomas Gutierrez Alea's breakthrough film is a philosophically political work that remains notable for its explicit sexuality--quite daring and surprising, given the year (1968) and the regime (Communist Cuba)--and for its smooth melding
of the surreal and the neorealist.
In 1961 Havana, wealthy landlord Sergio Carmona (Sergio Corrieri) despises the bourgeoisie, although he's outwardly bourgeois himself: He lives in a high-rise with a hi-fi and a blonde, high-fashion wife. He's not too bothered when the latter leaves him, joining other friends and relatives in
Cuba's massive, "brain-drain" emigration to Miami after the revolution. As Carmona wanders the city, he draws parallels between the increasing unavailability of goods and the disappearance of intellectualism, leaving Cuba to the mercy of a non-European peasant class he considers childish and
uncivilized. He is unaware of the inherent irony in his own behavior, which consists largely of lounging around, eating out, and seducing young women such as actress wannabe Elena Dorado--who's two years younger than the 18 she tells him--and blond European refugee Hanna, a high-school student.
Despite entreaties by friends, Carmona elects to remain in Cuba. He inherits a furniture store from his father, which comes in handy when the nationalizing government strips him of some of his rental property. As the country becomes grimmer and more dispirited, he strolls through like a
disinterested ghost, talking to himself and feeling above-it-all. He remains emotionally dead even when Elena, viciously lying, claims he raped her. When her family takes him to court, he accepts his eventual acquittal, musing that the judicial system still gives the upper classes more credibility
than they do peasants. At the end, the Cuban missile crisis comes and goes. Carmona remains blithe, a dead man walking.
If Gutierrez Alea was striving to create an insufferable, unsympathetic lead character, he achieved his goal: Carmona's haughtiness and condescension make him utterly unappealing and offer no insight into why he thinks being among the intellectual elite will mean anything positive in this gutted
land. The director's depiction of an enervated Cuba also lacks bite in retrospect, since his criticisms of the empty shelves and make-do lifestyle could as easily be blamed on Western embargoes and bullying as it could on the harsh, ineffective, and equally oppressive Castro regime.
And while Carmona's political and socioeconomic class musings remain fairly trenchant decades later, the film suffers from long newsreel insertions that stop it as dead as any Harpo or Chico musical solo does a Marx Brothers picture. Throughout, we see disruptive newsreel footage of
political symposiums and coverage of the trials of the Bay of Pigs prisoners.
Gutierrez Alea, perhaps still smarting over the government ban of his satiric DEATH OF A BUREAUCRAT (1966), was on something of a moral tightrope: Though ready to criticize the government, even obliquely, in his films, he was a bureaucrat of that very government, as he then served as a high
official with the Cuban Film Institute, or ICAIC (El Instituto Cubano de Arte Industria Cinematografia). Indeed, Gutierrez Alea himself plays Carmona's "friend at the ICAIC" who takes a meeting with Elena at his request.
Regardless of his slippery political stance, Gutierrez Alea is a world-class filmmaker--his work is stylish, slick, and infused with enough Western-filmmaking tradition that he, like a handful of other filmmakers from less-industrialized and Third World countries, made 1960s Europe and the U.S.
realize that auteurist, accessible filmmaking was happening there. Gutierrez Alea had studied in Rome with documentarist/neorealist Fernando Birri, and in MEMORIES OF UNDERDEVELOPMENT performs the audacious feat of pulling off neorealist-fantasy sequences--primarily, when Carmona imagines his
young housecleaner, Noemi, naked on his bed, beckoning him.
While MEMORIES is a landmark film that deserves wide exposure, its overriding concerns about intellectualism and class-consciousness--or, perhaps, class self-consciousness--feel dated. And despite the strength of his documentary-like visuals, sequences such as the professorially handsome Carmona's
efforts to "elevate" Elena through museums and bookstores make much of the film seem like a Woody Allen comedy without any jokes.(Extensive nudity, adult situations.)
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