Memorias del Subdesarrollo: A Critical Review.
A movie envisaged for participation and critical thinking
In his 1984 essay/manifesto on viewers’ dialectics, the Cuban director Tomàs Gutiérrez Alea lays down the distinction between cinema envisaged for pure consumption, versus one aimed at creating social consciousness (p. 120). The latter, the author explains, is crucial within a society that is, just like Cuba, ‘building socialism’ (p. 128). For Gutiérrez Alea, a movie’s production must engender participation, which the movie director defines as the ability to adequately respond to the issues that permeate current social reality. In a fashion characteristic of what Getino (1997) would refer to as Third Cinema, movies shall confront the viewers with the ideological struggles they have to resolve, contributing to the rational comprehension of some aspect of reality (p. 103). Directing Memorias del Subdesarrollo (1968) - one of the most celebrated and acknowledged movies of Latin American cinematography - Gutiérrez Alea is loyal to his words, putting together a film that impels participation and critical thinking. This review wishes to demonstrate Gutiérrez Alea’s consistency, by illustrating the ways in which his dialectical principles are put to work within his 1968 movie. For the purpose of this brief review, dialectic can be understood as the cinematographic ability to set up tension between discordant positions. Indeed, I will focus particularly on the contradictions that are established within the film, to then give an interpretation of the possible implications that all such contradictions might have.
The movie is an intervention within a specific socio-political time. Together with directors such as Joaquim Pedro de Andrade and Glauber Rocha - to name a few - Gutiérrez Alea locates the film within a wave of Latin American movies that aim to distance themselves from American canons (Getino, 1997, p. 277). The Cuban director himself is one of the founders of the Instituto Cubano del Arte e Industria Cinematográficos (ICAIC). The institute was established in 1959 and explicitly insisted on producing cinematographic content that would be freed from American influence, relying on the assumption that cinema is key within ideological formation (Lent, 1988, p. 59).
Memorias del Subdesarrollo enters the cinemas in 1968 - roughly ten years after Fidel Castro rose to power. At this time, the new revolutionary leader is busy institutionalizing communism and nationalizing Cuban businesses, and citizens are coming to terms with the difficulties of a post-revolutionary Cuba (Chomsky, 2015, p. 23). Meanwhile, due to the worsening of the relationships between the United States (US) and Cuba, the government of the US denies Gutiérrez Alea access to the country, forcing him to miss several awards ceremonies he had been invited to (Chanan, 1997, p. 128). This particular event goes to show the extent of the US versus Cuba tension, and allows us to better understand the biographic theme Gutiérrez Alea deals with in his film. The United States’ cultural model is an attractive alternative for unsatisfied Cubans. As an intellectual educated according to European standards, there is we have reasons to believe that the director projected in the movie an interior conflict of his own. It is interesting to notice that the historical tension is dichotomous: politics and culture intertwine, giving rise to the specific tension the movies tries to capture.
Memorias del Subseradollo: A clash of contradictions
The movie itself is set between two crucial moments of post-revolutionary Cuban history: The Bay of Pigs invasion (1961) and the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962). While many people are fleeing the country, Sergio - an aspiring intellectual from the commercial bourgeoisie - decides to stay, with the intention of finally setting himself to write the book he has always wanted to write. The plan is not successful, and oscillating between procrastination, disinterest and past life reflections, Sergio wanders around Havana, chasing women.
The plot is quasi-inexistent; the movie simply follows the stream of consciousness of the main character as he goes through his days. It is, as Chanan (1997) would say, a ‘movie of ideas’ (p. 125). Such ‘ideas’ are not necessarily restricted to Sergio’s ideological repertoire. The main character’s perspective is repeatedly interrupted and juxtaposed with fragments of photo essays, newsreels, broadcasts, and newspaper clippings, which depict the reality of Cuba’s pre- and post-revolutionary times. Gutiérrez Alea pastes together fiction and reality in the form of a collage. ‘Collage - a bit of everything’ are the precise words the director uses in his brief cameo appearance1 (min. 37.04). The timing in which documented reality takes over fiction is never random. As Sergio yawns, historical images depicting hunger appear on the screen. Right after his friend discloses his nostalgia for Batista’s regime, the scene cuts to shots disclosing tortured bodies belonging to the Bay of Pigs prisoners.
The reality-fiction dichotomy is accompanied by another one: that between individual and collective perspectives. While the fictional story is invaded by Sergio’s own internal thoughts - insistently individualist and self-centered- the documentary-like portions of the movie report a collective reality (see min. 25 for a clear example). But Sergio does not belong to the Cuban collective consciousness. His words ‘What is the sense of life for them? … And for me?’ (min. 17), delineate the distinction he traces between himself and Cubans. He refers to them as ‘underdeveloped’ (min. 5); yet, the movie does nothing but show that he is the one who is underdeveloped: an underdeveloped intellectual, an underdeveloped writer, an underdeveloped revolutionary, an underdeveloped lover.
Another telling duality is to be found within the camera focalizations. From the very first shots, it appears evident that the camera shifts from Sergio’s gaze onto the crowd of future expatriates and from the crowd’s gaze onto Sergio. This pattern is defined through two cinematographic techniques: double repetitions of specific scenes and the constant 180-degree camera shift. The first refers to the fact that a few scenes are shown twice. First, through an outsider perspective, and then, through Sergio’s one. Let us take as an example the initial farewell scene (mins. 4 - 6). People looking at Sergio see an apathetic and (once again) indifferent man. Sergio looking at people, sees an emotional crowd. These two views are incompatible. The second technique simply describes the action of the camera shifting from Sergio’s focalization to the crowd focalization. An example can be found at minutes 14.40-15.03.
Contradictions continue, with Sergio being ‘neither a revolutionary, nor a counterrevolutionary’ (min. 41.58), as Elena, a young Cuban girl he seduces, astutely remarks. His desire for European women -ironically explicit in his disturbing way of repeatedly touching Botticelli’s Venere- (e.g. minute 28), is also contradicted by his relationship with a Cuban woman.
Schroeder (2016) suggests that by proposing these constant oppositions - some more explicit than others - the movie wishes to show that the truth of the Revolution is to be found in neither an individual, nor a collective perspective, rather in their dialectical confrontation. By so doing, the movie urges the question of what it takes to develop a socialism that productively manages to incorporate both the individual and the collective need (p. 195). Extending Schroeder’s argument, we could say the same logic holds true for the shifting focalization: reality is neither to be found only in Sergio’s perspective, nor only in the people’s gaze towards Sergio. Only the dialectical confrontation of the two gives us a grasp of reality. It is precisely through such dialectical contradictions that the movie effectively does something to its viewer. It fosters questions, and from questions, thinking emerges.
If the movie manages to foster critical thinking, it does not tell us what the role of intellectuals should be within post-revolutionary Cuba. That is, it makes us critical of the existing state of things, but it does not give us an explicit alternative, thus contributing to the consciousness formation only implicitly. Lesage (2017, p.1) criticizes the movies’ implicitness. I disagree with this critique. Gutiérrez Alea’s implicit manner of touching upon the theme of the small bourgeoisie’s role within the revolution, as well as the individual/community dialectic and the exploration of Latin American intellectual’s lure for Europe, is brilliant and self-reflexive. At the same time, the lack of an explicit alternative allows the viewer to form their own opinion on the matter. Without pretending to escape his own well-off societal position, Gutiérrez Alea discloses to us the reality produced by a clash of conflict between the Western lure and the anti-Western revolutionary ideas, and how the intensity of such a clash is somewhat positively correlated with the amount of European culture we have been fed. I interpret the dichotomies of Memorias del Susdesarrollo as a clever attempt to foster participation and thinking in his viewers, proving Gutiérrez Alea’s consistency with his own principles.
1A cameo role or cameo appearance is a brief appearance or voice part of a well known person in a work of the performing arts. In this case, we see the director, Tomàs Gutiérrez Alea, discussing the production of a movie.
2That is, why does the main actor remind us so explicitly both of Mastroianni in Federico Fellini’s movie and of Jean-Paul Belmondo in Jean-Luc Godard’s one?
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