Monday, January 09, 2006

Memories of Underdevelopment (Alea, 1968)

In an early scene in Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s Memories of Underdevopment, a man removes a dead bird from a cage and then allows it to ‘take flight’ over the side of his balcony, several stories off the ground. This moment -- involving a creature that has no doubt longed its entire life to soar, but cannot do so because it is dead inside -- serves as a witty symbol of Cuba in the early 1960’s, just after Castro has risen to power. Alea’s thesis, if I understand it correctly, is that the state of underdevelopment and economic struggle leads to a populace that is largely incapable of sophisticated thought. Therefore, it looks to a person with dictatorial tendencies to provide guidance and direction. However, Alea does not stop there. He also suggests that Cuba is allowing itself to have its fate decided by the United States and Russia, a circumstance that could have disastrous consequences for the population, as evidenced by the Cuban Missile Crisis. The complexity of Alea’s film comes from the fact that he undermines his narrator by placing in a plot involving a seduction of an underage girl and the legal charges brought on by her outraged family. Although we have been listening to the narrator speak for Cuba’s interest, he seems to take on the role of the symbolic imperialist in this scenario. He, no doubt, sees their tryst as some kind of spiritual connection, despite the fact that his urge to conquer was the primary driving force. She and her family see the situation more simply. She has been penetrated, spoiled and, in their minds, raped. Alea’s perspective of his native country clearly involves both love and frustration. There is deep political outrage, but the answers to Alea’s concerns do not come easily. At times, the film seemed to me to possess too much narration offered in the same defeated tone, but ultimately it is an accomplished piece of cinematic poetry.



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