Once upon a time, The United States’s decades-long embargo of Cuban goods made it difficult to see films produced by our Caribbean neighbor. It took effort, and I have a painful and embarrassing memory from the ’90s of borrowing a friend of a friend’s bootlegged VHS copy of a contemporaneous Cuban film and then accidentally taping over it. Though I didn’t lose my friend because of my carelessness, I’m not so sure they didn’t lose theirs.
Since then, things have happily loosened up a bit on the embargo front (though if a certain President has his way, that could easily change again). Recent Cuban films are now available for rental or can be viewed via streaming services, and some (such as the recent zombie comedy Juan of the Dead) even pop up from time to time on premium cable channels such as HBO Signature.
Older films such as 1968’s Memorias del subdesarrollo (Memories of Underdevelopment), however, haven’t had as much exposure. Never before shown in the Bay Area (though it had a brief New York run in 1973) and only granted a domestic home video release last year, the film has been newly restored by Instituto Cubano del Arte e Industria Cinematograficos in collaboration with filmmaker George Lucas and The Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project, and screens at Pacific Film Archive at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Jan. 18.
Based on Edmundo Desnoes’ aptly titled novel Inconsolable Memories, the story revolves around Sergio (Sergio Corrieri), a bourgeois writer who’s chosen to stay on the island after the Revolution. While most of his friends and family (including his wife) have left for Miami in what appears to have been a surprisingly orderly exodus, Sergio has remained behind – perhaps because he lives rent free in a nicely furnished high-rise flat once owned by his family but since seized by the government.
Previously considered the Caribbean Paris, Sergio notes that Havana has since been reduced to being the “Caribbean Tegucigalpa”, a place where those trying “to live like a European” have difficulty finding anything to buy. On the surface things appear unchanged; beneath it, everything feels different, and the women Sergio seduces make him “feel underdevelopment with every step.”
Ah, the women. To suggest that Sergio is a bit of a male chauvinist pig is an understatement: he spends the entire film either reminiscing about the wife he physically abused or taking advantage of the women who remain, including his maid, a woman he picks up on the street (the memorable Daisy Granados), and a German schoolgirl — a relationship queasily underscored when he picks up Hemingway’s copy of Lolita during a visit to Papa’s old residence, Finca Vigía.
It’s Sergio’s attitude to women that marks him as an unrepentant bourgeois, but director Tomás Gutiérrez Alea allows viewers to draw their own conclusions about his protagonist, who’s otherwise an oddly sympathetic character. And this is not a dogmatic film: Memories of Underdevelopment even allows its characters to praise the wealth and ingenuity of the United States – including, prophetically, the mechanical superiority of American automobiles — suggesting that artistic freedom wasn’t completely stifled in post-Revolutionary Cuba.