Onscreen/Offscreen: Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s Memories of Underdevelopment and Strawberry and Chocolate

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      On March 24, 1959, in one of the first acts following the triumph of the Cuban Revolution, Castro’s nascent government established the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry (ICAIC), an act that cemented the primacy of cinema as a cultural force in the nation and initiated what remains the most productive era of Cuban filmmaking (now considered to be its golden age). Of the films that emerged, arguably the most significant is Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s Memories of Underdevelopment (1968), which screened as part of the ongoing Vancouver Latin American International Film Festival's spotlight on Cuba.

      Given its enduring stature—it placed 144th on the 2012 Sight and Sound poll of the greatest films of all time—what's immediately striking (and perhaps surprising) about Memories is its profound ambivalence towards the revolution. Set in Havana following the Bay of Pigs invasion (which, as seen at the film’s outset, triggered a mass exodus from the country in 1961), it’s characterized neither by outright dissent nor propagandist fervor, but by genuine uncertainty. (As such, it stands in glaring contrast to the fervent, rousing acrobatics of Mikhail Kalatozov’s I Am Cuba [1964], one of the most well-known Cuban films, despite being financed by the USSR.) Adapted from the novel by Edmundo Desnoes, the film focuses not on a member of the emancipated proletariat, but a member of the intellectual bourgeoisie: a writer named Sergio (Sergio Corrieri), who stays behind after his wife and elderly parents flee the country.

      That Gutiérrez Alea would choose a story with such a subject is less surprising when one considers that he himself was of a similar background. Raised in relative affluence, he received a law degree at a time when education was far from a given; he then studied cinema in Rome for a number of years before becoming involved with the ICAIC. In other words, like the film's protagonist, he didn't stand to gain much from Castro’s regime. But then, his relation to the revolution had never been one of uncritical embrace or outright rejection. Although Gutiérrez Alea hewed to the ICAIC’s foundational view of cinema as a means for social betterment, he assessed his role as "a man who makes criticism inside the revolution, who wants to ameliorate the process, to perfect it, but not to destroy it”—a view certainly borne out by his legacy.

      Seen today, it's not difficult to understand the enduring reputation of Memories. In 1968, when the film was made, both the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis, which bookend the story’s timeline, were already in the (recent) past, a fact that suffuses the film with the unique lucidity of hindsight. The title is no deception. It’s suggestive of both Sergio's own memories of a pre-revolutionary Cuba and a portrait of post-1959 Havana as it would have looked to then-contemporary audiences. Incorporating archival footage, documentary-like sequences, playful flights of fancy and prickly moral ambiguity, the film fused a kind of nouvelle vague playfulness with elements of what would become known as the Latin American “Third Cinema” movement—which, broadly speaking, rejected both the commercial Hollywood model and (European) auteur-centric methods in favour of a focus on revolutionary or social change.

      Sergio, whose interest as a protagonist resides precisely in his lack of audience identification, sees himself as a European intellectual and lives accordingly. He views his surroundings—and the signs of “underdevelopment”—with bafflement, confusion and, at times, outright contempt, his sense of dislocation and alienation matched only by his lassitude. True to form, however, he still makes time to chase women: the maid that comes to clean his spacious high-rise apartment, whom he daydreams about kissing as she speaks of her baptism; women on the street that he looks at with barely-concealed desire; his former wife whom he thinks about in tumultuous flashbacks. And then there's Elena (Daisy Granados), a young aspiring actress whom he becomes involved with, who later takes him to court and accuses him of taking advantage of her. Their relationship—the film's primary one, and the most reflective of its concerns with the lingering effects of colonialism—is at once lascivious and playful, fraught with ambiguity and a sense of danger, lent additional force by their respective (and now supposedly defunct) class standings. (“She makes me feel underdevelopment everywhere,” Sergio says of Elena in a biting, hilarious bit of dialogue.)

      That microcosmic interaction alone would be engaging enough, if a tad reminiscent of the European arthouse fare that the film was supposed to reject. Then again, Gutiérrez Alea didn't exactly shy away from incorporating foreign aesthetic approaches. In particular, the film’s tenuous and fragmentary sense of time has resulted in comparisons to Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima, Mon Amour (another work that grapples with the historical weight of memory). Already spatially disorienting—with furiously edited sequences in the tradition of revolutionary Soviet cinema (see: I Am Cuba)—Memories is temporally destabilizing as well. The present can slip with a sharp cut or shifting play of light; in moments of gorgeous lyricism, the camera literally tracks through the corridors of memory. Always active, the frame shatters the already tenuous footing of both protagonist and audience. Taken as a whole, Memories is a canny subversion of expectations—it begins with a sense of loss and dislocation, but offers little conclusiveness or assurance—and is all the more radical an achievement for it.

      Memories was the first Cuban film to be shown in the United States after 1959, but it wasn't until 1994 that a Cuban export—Gutiérrez Alea’s own Strawberry and Chocolate, directed with Juan Carlos Tabío—was first nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film. An undeniably minor effort, though massively popular during its release—it screens at the Vancouver Latin American Film Festival on Thursday (August 31)Strawberry and Chocolate remains useful as a time capsule of how the revolution and attitudes towards it had changed over the years. What begins as a setup for a cheesy softcore film—a flamboyant gay artist, Diego (Jorge Perugorría), attempts to seduce David (Vladimir Cruz), a straight university student—becomes an earnest (perhaps overly earnest) negotiation of revolutionary ideals. Diego, with his fervent individualism and, as a gay man, lack of acknowledgment by the government, is resistant to the Castro regime; David, meanwhile, is an aspiring writer (just like Sergio in Memories) and resolutely committed to the revolution. Apart from their initial meeting at Diego’s apartment, there’s no physical connection between the two (though there’s a lengthy subplot where David is seduced by Nancy, a friend of Diego’s); their exchange is strictly intellectual—discussions on art and literature, personal attitudes towards the revolution, and even dialectics (which doubles as the directors’ central strategy for the film itself). The endpoint, unsurprisingly, is a state of mutual understanding and respect.

      In both aesthetic and sociopolitical ambition, Strawberry is a relatively innocuous work, which, in part, indicates a shift from the vigorous cinema of the 1960s. By the 1990s, financial instability had taken over—owing to both the grand commercial follies of the 1980s and the collapse of the Soviet Union—which in turn led to the corresponding rise of independent productions, a fitting progression for the next generation of Cuban filmmakers. Gutiérrez Alea, who died just two years after the release of Strawberry and Chocolate, was never able to take part. Given the extent to which he helped define an entire generation of Cuban filmmaking, however, that conclusion does hold a certain poignancy.

      Possibly the most succinct summation of his contributions occurs early on in Memories of Underdevelopment, when Sergio remarks on how the newfound vacancy of his life will finally give him time for his artistic endeavours: “Now I'll know if I really have something to say.” It's the ultimate test for an artist, one that Gutiérrez Alea and the Cuban directors of the 1960s were uniquely poised to reckon with. That close to half a century on, such a line (and its implicit question) would even be quoted, is, perhaps, the clearest of answers.

      The Vancouver Latin American Film Festival presents Strawberry and Chocolate at the Cinematheque on Thursday (August 31)

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