Memories of Underdevelopment (1968)

“I am 39 years old and already an old man. I feel stupid. More rotten than mature.”

‘Memories of Underdevelopment’, directed by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea in 1968, is a Cuban drama that focuses on a writer in Havana during the lead up to the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962. The writer, Sergio played by Sergio Corrieri, is a relatively rich bourgeois who decides to stay in the country when his wife flees to America. Throughout the film, Sergio spends time alone and in the company of a string of women, seducing them unemotionally. Finally he finds himself accused of sexual assault and, even though he is let off, he becomes aware that he is in a liminal state between being innocent of his crime, but guilty of being a wealthy intellectual and thus out of line with the revolution. It’s a complex movie with a timeline that is purposefully unclear. The central thematic focus of the film is clearly not the writer but the world around him, and Alea uses the isolation and unsympathetic actions of the writer to bravely both critique and expose life in post-revolutionary Cuba. Throughout the film we see news and documentary footage of the revolution and, in one chillingly evocative scene, footage of Kennedy’s missile crisis speech shown on Cuban television. It’s fascinating to see the other side of this time in history. For my PhD thesis I wrote a chapter examining the 1962 crisis as depicted in Hollywood, looking at how the events were, and continue to be, reshaped to create a paradigm of ‘presidentiality’ that post-Kennedy presidents both use and aspire to. Here the crisis is used as a thematic tool to expose not a paradigm of leadership, but a critique of the bourgeois mentality. It’s not as clear a case of propaganda as can be found in ‘Soy Cuba’, a film which used stunning cinematography and visual effects to mythologise the revolution,  but ‘Memories of Underdevelopment’ gets to the same place more subtly.

Would I recommend it? Yes – and a double-bill with ‘Soy Cuba’ would be the obvious one. I’d also suggest Roger Donaldson’s 2000 movie ‘Thirteen Days’ as a great representation of the American perspective of the missile crisis.

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