MEMORIES OF UNDERDEVELOPMENT (Gutierrez Alea, 1968)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date 8/28/2018
Review by Christopher S. Long
In a silent exchange, Sergio (Sergio Corrieri) bids farewell to his wife at the Havana airport, a scene the handheld camera almost seems to pick up by accident. Though his wife is heading off to Miami for good, Sergio doesn't seem particularly perturbed to stay behind alone.
Then again, nothing much seems to truly touch the suave playboy. It's 1961 and revolution has just swept his island home, but he whiles his days away either knocking about aimlessly in his swanky apartment, trying on his wife's stockings out of sheer boredom, or cruising the streets looking for young women to charm. Pity poor Elena (Daisy Granados) for being one of the first to catch Sergio's eye; he'll soon grow as bored with the teenage naif as he does with everything else in life. His crass treatment of the young girl (seduced and abandoned!) will eventually lead to a courtroom case where his lofty status in the former social hierarchy may or may not save him in the revolutionary order.
But that capsule summary misrepresents writer/director Tomás Gutiérrez Alea's “Memories of Underdevelopment” (1968), widely hailed as one of the great masterpieces of Cuban cinema. Gutiérrez Alea's film only nominally follows the barest sketch of a plot. Instead, the film employs a dizzying array of audiovisual strategies to contrast the personal with the historical, a history playing out with equal force in both the past and the present.
Set in 1961 and 1962, essentially between the Bay of Pigs Invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis, the film mixes in ample doses of actuality footage from newsreels to still photographs. Sergio paces around his apartment while tanks rumble through the streets of Havana. Sergio expresses his idle thoughts in voiceover (“This island is a trap”) to nobody but himself; Fidel Castro spits fire to an entire nation at a fist-pounding press conference. Editor Nelson Rodríguez performs a minor miracle in deftly stitching all the disparate sources together in startling and provocative ways.
Sergio does everything he can to insulate himself from both his own past and his country's present. He laughs while listening to an audio recording of an argument he had with his wife, but when the film flashes back to depict the actual moment, even the faintest illusion of Sergio's cultivated aloofness is demolished; he is a coward and a bully. He can ignore those tanks rolling through the streets as long as he wants to, but they'll still be knocking down the walls of his apartment building any day now.
Gutiérrez Alea adapted a short novel by the Cuban writer Edmundo Desnoes, who also co-wrote the script along with the director. While the film savagely critiques the detached privilege and willful blindness of its wealthy protagonist, its attitude towards the Cuban Revolution is more ambiguous. Sergio has good reason to hide away in his fortress of privilege, and perhaps his wife was the smart one in showing the initiative and foresight to flee rather than staying behind because it was easier and more comfortable.
The film is presented in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio. The camera negative suffered from “advanced vinegar syndrome” which required the use of an interpositive print to replace multiple reels. The extensive restoration involved a host of entities including Cineteca di Bologna, L'Immagine Ritrovata, the George Lucas Family Foundation, and The Film Foundation's World Cinema Project.
The massive restoration project has certainly paid off. Though the occasional scene shows some signs of damage (mostly a few shots just looking a bit softer than the rest), the image quality is generally quite sharp. The black-and-white contrast isn't quite as sharp, but still strong. Few viewers have ever seen the film looking this good.
The linear PCM mono track is adequate if not particularly robust. A few pops and hisses, the occasional modest dropoff, but all due to damage to the sound negative. Optional English subtitles support the Spanish audio.
Criterion has stacked this new Blu-ray release with a diverse array of supplementary features, some made just for the Criterion release, others culled from archival sources.
The collection begins with two new interviews recorded by Criterion. In the first (2018, 19 min.), critics B. Ruby Rich and José Antonio Évora discuss Gutiérrez Alea's career, noting the esteemed status he held in Cuba's film community when he released “Memories of Underdevelopment” in 1968. This piece also emphasizes the director's focus on filmmaking as a communal effort. In another new interview (2018, 16 min.) novelist/screenwriter Edmundo Desnoes shares his ideological perspective when writing “Memories,” both the book and then the screenplay.
The disc also includes two recent interviews from 2017. Actress Daisy Granados (9 min.) talks about working with Gutiérrez Alea; Elena wasn't her first prominent role, but it was a major breakthrough for her. Editor Nelson Rodríguez (16 min.) discusses the rewards and challenges of working on a film project that didn't rely on a fully-fixed script. Gutiérrez Alea gave him a lot of latitude in the editing room, forcing Rodríguez to really push himself. He notes that edited archival footage (which, itself, was already edited) was the most difficult part. This is my favorite feature on the disc.
We also get an audio-only interview with Gutiérrez Alea, conducted in 1989. It runs 11 minutes and I wouldn't call it revelatory, but it's of interest.
The lengthiest supplemental feature on the disc is “Titón: From Havana to 'Guantanamera'” (2008, 96 min.), a documentary by Mirtha Ibarra, the director's widow. Ibarra notes that this documentary is her remembrance, but that “I want other to tell me about him.” She begins by talking to the director's sister about his childhood, then to numerous friends, co-workers and admirers.
The collection wraps up with a Theatrical Trailer (3 min.)
The slim fold-out insert booklet features an essay by author Joshua Jelly-Schapiro.
I don't possess the requisite knowledge to assess what Gutiérrez Alea's is saying about post-revolutionary Cuba. I can understand, however, why “Memories of Underdevelopment” is widely heralded as on the greatest Cuban films ever made. Criterion has provided an excellent Blu-ray release, featuring a high-def transfer of an extensively restored print and an array of insightful supplements. This will no doubt feature prominently on many year-end lists of the best Blu-ray releases of 2018.