Memories of Underdevelopment (Memorias del subdesarrollo) Review
Sergio (Sergio Corrieri) stayed behind in Cuba when everyone else he knew – his wife, his parents and his friends – all left for the USA in the wake of the Bay of Pigs incident. Left alone in post-revolutionary Cuba, he contemplates a changed world which he is not part of, yet one constantly under threat of invasion. Then he meets a young woman, Elena (Daisy Granádos). Has his life changed for the better?
Memories of Underdevelopment (Memorias del subdesarrollo) was Tomás Gutiérrez Alea's fifth feature and was the one which established his reputation overseas. In the last years of the 1960s, this no doubt seemed very much on the cutting edge of world cinema: politically current subject matter, with a cinematic technique clearly influenced by Godard. There's not much plot in the usual sense, more a series of named sections that add up to a character study of a man out of his place and time and quite aware of it. However, while I find much of Godard's more overtly political work dry to the point of near-unwatchability, Memories of Underdevelopment is a more humanly engaging work. There's an ambiguity at its heart: Alea was a staunch supporter of Castro's Revolution, but is clear-sighted about its shortcomings as well; and at the same time he clearly sympathises with a character some distance from his own political position.
If the subject matter has inevitably dated, Gutiérrez Alea's cinematic style still impresses. He mixes fiction with documentary footage (some of it harrowing, depicting the poverty and starvation under Batista's regime) and still photography, not to mention the type of associative cross-cutting more associated with Alain Resnais and later Nicolas Roeg. Edmundo Desnoes, writer of the original novel and collaborator with Gutiérrez Alea on the screenplay, turns up as himself at a writer's conference Sergio attends. The film takes in the changed circumstances of the Cubans, and especially the role of an intellectual in a post-revolutionary Cuba. It also touches on the changing roles of women, especially in the later stages when Sergio is accused of sexually “taking advantage”.
Memories of Underdevelopment is a film of its time, and anyone interested in 60s politics, and particularly those of Cuba, which remains as of this writing one of the few Communist states in the world should certainly see it. It's a film that asks questions rather than proposes answers, and one that rewards repeated viewings.
Mr Bongo's DVD is encoded for all regions. The film begins with the concentric-circles logo of its UK theatrical distributor, Contemporary Films, which indicates that the source of this transfer is an old cinema print. The giveaways are a contrast range that's higher than it should be, noticeable ghosting, and some dirt and damage – particularly every twenty minutes or so, coinciding with a reel change. (No cue dots appear though.) The transfer is non-anamorphic in a ratio of 1.66:1, but given the source material I suspect the film print was matted in that ratio and what we have is effectively open-matte. Some of the archive film is inevitably grainier than the new material, but it's all rather too soft.
The soundtrack is mono, as the film has always been, and is clear enough. English subtitles are available and are optional – but aren't 16:9 friendly.
Most Mr Bongo DVDs I have seen have no extras. This is an exception, though that extra is only a stills gallery. Six thumbnails lead to six larger images, but it's not possible to proceed through them as you have to return to the thumbnail index in between each one.
Mr Bongo are to be commended for releasing some challenging films onto DVD which have slipped into obscurity in the intervening years, and returning now-neglected directors to notice. Transfers are usually acceptable, and the lack of extras is counteracted by the generally low price point. Generally that would be no problem, as if you wanted Criterion-style and -quantity extras you would have to pay extra for them. Yet I can't help feeling that films like this one, or The Saragossa Manuscript (which I reviewed for this site in a different edition), or The Hour-Glass Sanatorium, or Black God White Devil (which I will be reviewing shortly) are films which need some contextualising extras more than most, or else the viewer needs to have a level of erudition they are unlikely to possess. Certainly more than I do, and at least I had heard of the films even if I hadn't seen them before...but I couldn't escape the feeling that to a greater or lesser extent these films were going over my head.