Memories of Underdevelopment

by Julia Lesage

The word ‛subdesarrollo’ or underdevelopment plagues everyone who lives in South America. It may mean a colonised economy or insufficient industrial development, or it just may come to mean that foreign is better.

The Cuban film Memories of Underdevelopment, directed by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, deals with the topic of underdevelopment in a number of ways. Primarily the film concerns itself with the life and thoughts of a bourgeois intellectual, Sergio, who has literally stayed behind after the revolution. He stays in Cuba when his wife and parents move to the United States because he wants to observe what is going to happen in Cuba. He thinks of himself as ‘Europeanised’; for him, underdevelopment means that the Cuban mind is underdeveloped. Sergio criticises people, especially women, for forgetting things and not being consistent, but in his own case remembering everything just paralyses him.

The novel from which the film was adapted (published later in English as Inconsolable Memories), was written by Edmundo Desnoës, a Cuban intellectual who spent many years in the United States, which influenced his writing. He returned to Cuba after the revolution, playing an active role in the running of the publishing house Casa de las Americas, before moving back to the United States to spend his later years in New York. Desnoës seems to have put a lot of himself into his novel’s first person narrator, giving him many sympathetic qualities and flashes of insight. However, he also holds his alter ego up for criticism. In Alea’s film the protagonist, Sergio, represents a “memory of underdevelopment,” a bourgeois who immerses himself in his own mental acuity but who cannot break free from angst and commit to anything meaningful.

Both the novel and the film are complex both in style and meaning. In the novel, the protagonist criticises his friend Eddy (Desnoës) for writing a story with flat characterisation about an alienated intellectual who is saved by committing himself to the revolution. This reference indicates the vigour with which Cuban artists and intellectuals have long battled socialist realism. Indeed, the film version stands as one of the best examples of Cuban artists’ independence and efforts to create new forms of political art. Significantly, Memories of Underdevelopment is thoroughly urban; neither Desnoës nor Alea include folklore references, popular with other Cuban artists. The novel and the film look to European and American cultural influences and are not afraid to use mainstream Western contemporary modes of expression even while criticising their impact on Cuban life.

Cuba’s political history provides the film’s framework: its opening sequence shows a public dance at which a political leader is assassinated. Later, a central documentary sequence, seemingly unrelated to the narrative, depicts and analyses moments from the trial of the counterrevolutionary officers captured at Playa Giron. A final series of sequences is about the missile crisis and combines both documentary shots and narrative material.

In terms of style, Alea comments on the theme of underdevelopment in two ways. He develops a psychological narrative in the style of European films about Sergio’s existential alienation. At the same time he holds that alienation up to criticism by means of documentary footage, which shows us the revolution that Sergio will not join. The film mixes cinematic styles and modes of spoken discourse, moving back and forth in time, frequently according to Sergio’s memories. The shots of the Cuban people on the street during the film and particularly at the dance at the beginning of the film show Sergio as a tall, fair man who looks like a gringo – something a Latin audience would pick up on since skin colour is often an index of class. It seems that Alea uses such a fair protagonist to emphasise, in visual terms, this middle class intellectual’s alienation from the people.

In the film, as in the novel, Sergio’s “perceptions of reality, sometimes deformed, and always subjective,” also become the object of our critical attitude. Film director Alea explains:

“… The confrontation between his world with the ‘documentary’ world that we show (our subjective world) can have some rich overtones… We developed more than what was included in the novel, that line which shows ‘objective’ reality that surrounds the character and that little by little closes in on him and suffocates him at the end. That line alternates with the protagonist’s own and is basically built with documents, that is, with current testimonies.”

The documentary elements in the narrative sections of the film are generally effective, for example the depiction of a round table discussion that Sergio attends. The forum’s topic is “Literature and Underdevelopment”, and the panellists include the real Edmundo Desnoës and Jack Gelber, the North American playwright who wrote the introduction to the English translation of Inconsolable Memories. In this filmed panel Desnoës speaks about his long stay in the United States, where he says he was just another “spic”, and he especially criticises the country’s “great white dream”. Another speaker says that underdevelopment and development are sick words, a linguistic and ideological alibi, and that Cuba needs instead the words capitalism and socialism. Jack Gelber then demands humorously, “Why use an impotent form like a round table discussion after the revolution?” But the fact that he uses English to protest against academic bullshit, also in English, reveals, once more, the presence of cultural imperialism.

In political terms, the film may challenge a Cuban audience. Alea shows Sergio living untroubled and alone in luxury, well after the revolution, in an apartment that could have housed a family or two. The audience is supposed to criticise and not envy this way of life. Also, buildings deteriorated in Havana after the government prioritised rural development, but Alea shows Sergio’s Havana apartment as being in perfect condition. In one sequence in the film, we also learn that Sergio’s income comes from monthly state payments for a building of his that had been confiscated, and that he will receive payments for another thirteen years. All of these details in the film paint a picture of Cuba as being fair to those bourgeois who have stayed, letting them, like Sergio, just fade away of their own accord and not stripping comforts from them. Yet what ‘message’ does this apartment in the movie have for a Cuban audience? It seems to say, “You are superior for you are working for the revolution, while a character such as Sergio has all these fine possessions but is empty inside.” But maybe the audience looks at the nice plumbing with envy or thinks it should go to someone more deserving. Specifically, the film does not analyse the relation between Sergio living in material comfort and the theme of underdevelopment as a whole.

Cuba and the Intellectuals

Both the novel and the film were finished before 1971 and the First National Congress on Education and Culture when Castro waged an all out war on “cultural imperialism”. At that time Castro said that artists and writers must reject “all manifestations of a decadent culture, the fruit of a society or societies that are rent by contradictions.” Early in the revolution, Castro had called for the development of a New Person to meet the exigencies of the new society. For ten years the motto for intellectuals was, “Within the revolution, everything. Outside the revolution, nothing.” But by 1968, after the film was made, newspapers published many open critiques of “decadent” art. Although Memories of Underdevelopment has not lost its standing in Cuba as a superb artistic achievement, both as a novel and as a film, neither Desnoës nor Alea have done any similar works since then, that is, works which show an obvious European influence. After collaborating with Alea on the screenplay, Desnoës wrote the English translation of the novel, incorporating incidents from the film, and it was released in the United States in 1967.

However, I would argue that Latin intellectuals cannot, even after the revolution, declare themselves untouched by European and North American thought, for the very concept of underdevelopment, which exerts as powerful an influence in post-revolutionary Cuba as ever, means that the intellectual has been strongly shaped by foreign conceptual models. In both its theme and its style, Alea’s film takes up the subject of underdevelopment and foreign influences and shows the need to put what has been gained from abroad at the service of the revolution.

The film does not show, though, what should happen to an intellectual class after the revolution, and this is its weakest point in political terms. The New York critics saw the film as being about the depiction of a sensitive intellectual and admired the way it treated the intellectual’s alienation within a changing, proletarian society.  We see Sergio committed to himself, but the film does not say how an intellectual sympathetic and committed to revolution would implement that commitment in real terms. Desnoës, who went back to Cuba and then returned to the United States, and Alea, who is sympathetic to the revolution but never joins the Communist Party, and even the actor Corrieri, who left acting to lead El Teatro Escambray in rural areas, all made momentous personal decisions in this regard. But the film never depicts these kinds of decisions.

According to some New York reviewers, that the film does not show how an intellectual can ‘join the working class’ and commit to the revolution is one of its main strengths, saving it from dogmatism. However, if, as in Cuba, the audience already has a revolutionary mentality, the film may be interpreted as a critique of outmoded ways of thought. Within the context of a society accomplishing a revolution, the film serves a political end. In the United States, it can be co-opted.

This text is an edited excerpt from the essay “Memories of Underdevelopment” by Julia Lesage, which is available online at The essay was firstly published in JumpCut: A Review of Contemporary Media magazine (No.1, May – June 1974), which we would like to thank. The online version of the essay can be found here:



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