At the Movies

Michael Wood

‘The Americans really know how to do things,’ the central character thinks in Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s Memories of Underdevelopment (1968), now available in an elegant new print. He is a Cuban living in Havana in the days after the Bay of Pigs disaster, but he is not being sarcastic. He is not actually thinking about the Americans at all, and says later in the film that he already knows New York, while the true mystery in his life is what will happen in his own country. The question is still open at the end of the movie as the missile crisis looms.

The Americans are a name for what this man, Sergio, played with wonderfully languid authority by Sergio Corrieri, imagines the Cubans are not. Does he believe Castro and the revolutionaries of 1959 didn’t know how to do things? Not exactly. He is still living in his flat with its amazing view over the city and the sea – we see this through the telescope on his balcony, though the suggestion is that his chief interest is in the girls by the swimming pool below. The film has a brilliant deadpan comic scene in which Sergio is interviewed by a bureaucrat about his economic status. What does he do for a living? Nothing, he says. Then what does he live on? The rents from the apartments he used to own. The clerk notes: ex-landlord. Sergio reckons the money will last for a few years, even though his furniture business has been nationalised and his car confiscated.

He has chosen to stay in Cuba when many of his compatriots, including his father and mother and wife, have chosen to leave. That is one thing they really know how to do: get to Miami. Sergio broods on his marriage, broken even before his wife left, has recurring fantasies about sleeping with the girl who comes to clean his flat, has an affair with a young woman, Elena (Daisy Granados), which would be light-hearted for Sergio if he knew how to let go of his irony, and is light-hearted for her until he ditches her. He remembers his schooldays, his first visit to a brothel, an affair with a German girl he almost married long ago. He and Elena visit Hemingway’s house, now a museum. Just books and dead animals, Sergio thinks, and Hemingway was the colonial sahib. The Cubans were Gunga Din – it’s not an accident that he takes his historical analogy from a 1939 movie and another continent.

Mainly Sergio wanders through the streets of Havana, thinking in voiceover. Gutiérrez Alea helps him out with great shots of people, nightclubs, old buildings, schools, taxis, posters, graffiti, packed bookshelves, empty shop-shelves, montages of violent action from Cuban history and the Spanish Civil War (including Robert Capa’s famous photo of a dying soldier). The base at Guantánamo Bay opens, or rather encloses itself.

Sergio is confused. ‘Everything is the same,’ he says, looking around him. And then: ‘I have changed, and the city has changed.’ He quotes a poem by Neruda, though he is addressing Havana rather than a person: todo en ti fue naufragio, ‘everything in you was a shipwreck.’ In the novel on which the film is based, Edmundo Desnoes’s Inconsolable Memories from 1965 (the title of the book comes from Hiroshima mon amour), Sergio cites Rimbaud to show how savage he is: ‘It is obvious to me that I belong to a lower race.’

Sergio is wrong both about himself and about the city. He hasn’t changed at all, and never will. The question is how will such a relic live in the world after 1962, if there is still a world. The city has and has not changed, and the film rests on the counterpoint between the energetic confusion we keep seeing and the dim resignation Sergio likes to linger in. There is a name for his condition, and it appears in the title of the film. But Sergio uses it of everyone and everything except himself, so the term needs quite a bit of unpacking. It was significant enough for Desnoes to change the title of his novel after the movie came out, and we can begin by asking what may happen when a technical term from international economics is used as an instrument of cultural or psychological diagnosis.

A few instances, to set the scene. For Sergio, Cuba is ‘this underdeveloped island’. It is ‘one of the signs of underdevelopment’, he thinks, to fail to connect things, to be inconsistent, as Elena is. ‘I am trying to live like a European,’ he says, ‘but I meet with underdevelopment at every step.’ ‘Havana,’ he claims with perhaps more nostalgia than scepticism, ‘used to be the Paris of the Caribbean.’ Now it’s at best the Tegucigalpa. What could be worse for a Cuban than to sink to the cultural level of Honduras? For good measure, Gutiérrez Alea has Sergio attend a round-table on the subject of underdevelopment, where Desnoes himself, among others, sits and pontificates. A great interrupting moment occurs when Jack Gelber, author of the once famous play The Connection, asks a question: why is a post-revolutionary discussion, of underdevelopment or anything else, taking such an ancien régime form as this plodding panel? One of the panellists admits that the word ‘underdevelopment’ is ‘sick’, another that it is ‘at least sickly’.

Quite apart from the film, anyone who spent any time in Latin America in the later part of the 20th century will have heard the word repeatedly in the context of a falsely self-deprecating joke. It suggests that those who live in so-called underdeveloped places know when things don’t work, it’s part of their life. A lot of things don’t work in the developed world either, but there no one seems to notice. It’s also possible to enjoy being underdeveloped, because it means you’re not rigid and robotic and standardised, like everyone else. Why would we want roads without potholes? Or as a Russian friend of mine once said, the sad thing about America isn’t all the ‘No Smoking’ signs but the fact that nobody smokes where it says ‘No Smoking’.

There is a temporal displacement in the film, as well as a blatant attempt to shift the blame for what’s wrong onto the underdeveloped natives. Has the Cuban revolution changed things? Yes, and that is why Sergio spends the whole film thinking about the old Cuban order, as if it were essential, timeless. The elite tries to live up to European models, and the masses haven’t even heard of Europe – that’s why they are so uncivilised, because there is no model for civilisation apart from the European one. This story was never true, of course, and the images in the film show how reductive it is. But it is a story with a long pedigree in colonial societies, and it is convenient in many ways, if you’re rich enough and you can get yourself to believe it.

Does Sergio believe it? He seems to, and there is only one moment in the film that suggests he believes something else. If we are to take his thoughts literally, then his irony, so subtle and superior in other respects, completely misses a major dimension. ‘I am trying to live like a European, but I meet with underdevelopment at every step.’ The film is laughing although he isn’t, and even the members of the plodding panel know better than this.

But Sergio isn’t simply pompous – not pompous at all except in lines of this sort. And he makes one extraordinary remark, which might answer most of our questions about him if it weren’t itself such a riddle. Saying goodbye to one of his old friends, off to Miami, he thinks this man represents a former life that Sergio is in the process of shedding. The departing friend is what Sergio once was and ‘the revolution’ – I quote in very literal translation now – ‘although it destroys me, is my revenge on the stupid Cuban bourgeoisie.’

On his old self too, therefore. There is a pettiness in the thought, of course. The revolution had other goals, was not made to give bourgeois self-scorn an outing. But at least he understands what class is, what his class is like, and why it might have something to do with the revolution. He isn’t going to escape his infinite self-regard, or his love of postures, but we can’t expect that. There is such a thing as underdevelopment, beyond all the ironies, even if it doesn’t live where Sergio thinks it does.