Memories of Havana in Memoirs of Underdevelopment

Por: Berta Carricarte Melgarez


this Afrokán, the Mozambican, the danceable folk festival, the murder and the possessed and defiant gaze of a young woman whose Africania planted a provocation to the camera, are the first images of the film which, half a century later, remains the most precious jewel of Cuban cinema. Without a doubt, it would be our best cover letter in any forum on the seventh art that turned its gaze to the 1960s.

“A cold voice, without special, mechanical inflections, will read a record raised by the police on the occasion of the discovery of a corpse in an apartment in Vedado on the so many days of October 1961. The body shows signs of poisoning and is presumed to be the result of suicide. Among the documents found (some can be listed) and which may be of interest to research, there is a diary.”1

Thus begins the original script, written by Edmundo Desnoes and Tomás Gutiérrez Alea (Titón), and based on the novel of the same name by Desnoes himself. However, those who have seen the film know that this fragment, where there is talk of a certain corpse, can only refer to Sergio, the protagonist. And they know, moreover, that it is not true: Sergio never kills himself in the final version of the film, which introduces readings very different from what his character represents. In short, Memoirs… he addresses moments from the life of a bourgeois, whose family leaves the island on the eve of the October crisis, while he remains a distant and listless observer. Between the literary text, the script and the film there is no great distance, although the film allows to recreate situations that had not previously been described.
A film script also indicates certain things, shallowly, which is then necessary to specify before and during the film creation process, and even later, during postfilming, specifically at the time of assembly. The art direction of a film is one of those processes rarely specified in the script, but which must be meticulously assumed throughout the film’s production.
The direction of art or artistic design is the activity from which a stage is built and decorated, an environment is recreated, objects are manufactured or managed, the costumes are advised and the makeup and hairdressing of the characters are supervised; that is, the fictional components of a staging materialize, ready to be filmed. It even intervenes in post-production, today also subject to digital manipulations.
Although films of the highest quality were produced in Cuba around 1968, there was neither the art director among us nor a department that expressly took care of ensuring that concerns this task, as was customary in other cinematography. In the specific case of Memoirs of underdevelopment appear in the technical sheet prop, costume design and decorator (Julio Mantilla), makeup and hairdressing. There is no mention of a headline for scenery. And, of course, the position of art director is never blushed. How then did scenery, architectural elements, character design and ambience become a magnificent support for the story? How could the visual coherence and semantic richness of his images be constructed?
In Memoirs… art direction is assumed tactatly by Titon himself, as an implicit fact and a substantial part of his responsibilities as director. The custom of filming in natural locations, previously cowed for that matter, lowers costs, and is the result of a film production strategy that had been successfully rehearsed in both Italian neorealism and the New Wave. In fact, part of the activity of art direction is to train visual memory, memoristically record places and spaces in which the scene of a film can potentially be shot.

Momentos de la peícula cubana "Memorias del subdesarrollo"
Moments from the Cuban pebble “Memories of underdevelopment”

It can be said that Memoirs… it was filmed mainly in natural settings: the airport and Rancho Boyeros Avenue; Galiano Street, its shops and bookstores; Fe del Valle Park; the streets of Vedado; Lasalle School; the Columbus neighborhood; Tropical Gardens; The Riviera hotel’s swimming pool; the Ramp; the National Museum of Fine Arts; Hemingway House Museum; the office and projection room of the ICAIC, the Malecon, etc.
An important location is Sergio’s apartment: “The furniture in the room – just a dozen words in the text – will have cost about five thousand pesos,” Desnoes recalls.2 According to the script it was supposed to be a duplex apartment, modern, well assembled, without too much luxury, good furniture, but of American taste; paintings by the most renowned Cuban painters: Amelia Peláez, Raúl Martínez, René Portocarrero, Wifredo Lam, as well as framed family photos; magazines (Vogue, Life, Harper’s, Bazaar), a record player, an Italian coffee maker, among other objects. The apartment is distinguished by its large windows, walls-glass where the daylight freely penetrates, which reveals that Sergio is a man open to ideas, knowledge, freethinking, untethered, without doctrines, but is also a symbol of the economic and social status of the character.
Some of the urban spaces captured by the lens already show the deterioration and resounding changes that have happened since the triumph of the Revolution: a bourgeois mansion converted into diplomatic headquarters; the convent school turned into a police station; the College of Nuns (where he studied Sergio’s girlfriend) converted into the Lenin Special School; posters, signs, billboards proclaiming the new imaginary of Cuban society.
In one of the initial sequences, the camera describes a path that includes images and labels about the COR, emulation, and various moments of philist iconography. That stained glass window that exhibits a bust of José Martí, accompanied by a buffalo with artificial flowers and a sign that repeats a distorted martyred thought: “Our wine is sour, but it is our wine”. In that same stained glass window appears a doll and an unfinished phrase of a speech: “If we are imposed by war…”, accompanied by a mannequin and the photo of Fidel. Another stained glass window bears an enigmatic sign that reads: “Aquilimbo. This unit is emulating compliance with the Golden Rule.” Another image of the middle leader hidden by a curtain that falls sliding over the picture. A picture of Martí, very blurry, in another stained glass window. A triptych, in whose niches is located an image of Fidel, a naked doll on the head of another image of it, and a painting depicting Christ and Our Lady. This was, grossly, the visual interpretation of what the script notes as: “He would vine with few things and some ‘revolutionary’ ornaments.” Let us remember that parallel to the images, Sergio’s monologue is integrated, almost always as an ideological counterpoint to what we are seeing. And when at the end of that fragment appear faces that are flat, tense, sad, humble, tired or indifferent, Sergio takes prudential distance and says, “I am not like them.”
As a prey to being a cultured and informed man, Sergio visits the National Museum of Fine Arts taking Elena with him. This space converted into a film set is forming an idea of what happens at the staging level, and contributes to give a specific meaning to the story. Sergio complains there of Elena’s intellectual indifference, while we see her passing heel, with contained perreta pitch, while her figure is drawn on the back of the gallery, as an invasive and emotionally decontextualized element. This creates a sense of denial and rejection between figure and space at the narrative level. In this sense David Bordwell’s observation can be added: “It is not that the camera chooses the best position from which to capture an independently existing event; the figures, lighting, location and costumes have been constructed in such a way that they make sense only from certain points of observation.” In front of a painting by Acosta León, Elena interrupts Sergio’s effort to explain the content of the work, dedicating he or her rather to fixing her tie.
The following sequence is developed at the Ernest Hemingway House Museum, in Finca La Vigía. This space is recreated in greater detail, and Elena moves within it questioning the legitimacy of such a hierarchy. At first, despite her manifest ignorance, she gains authority when she establishes judgments through which she compares and qualifies space. It’s the only time Sergio and she match from different points of view. There is rejection and denial on her part when she identifies the alienating aspects of the U.S. presence: “just like in Central Preston…”, Elena says contemptantly.
The Hemingway museum functions as an actant that triggers the breakup between Sergio and Elena, first symbolically, as this has been perhaps Sergio’s last attempt to stimulate or discover a symptom of cultural greed in Elena, and she has again manifested her “underdevelopment”, her manipulability, her lack of interest in knowledge. Sergio hides in a room in the museum, to dodge the encounter with her that, in the face of uncertainty, leaves in a taxi. They will no longer be treated as a couple. The space of the Hemingway House Museum has sealed the denial of a romance that cannot thrive, and the rejection of the male elitist character, denied to assume an iletrada Cinderella and remisa.
The Casa Museo is also an adjuvant, as it allows Sergio to live the illusion of believing himself a civilized European, in contact with the cultural heritage of a world famous novelist. It is a respite amid the chaos that reigns around him and of which he does not feel involved, although he does eventually fall victim. Although, as Rufo Caballero stated: “After his presumptions of superiority, the voice of Memoirs… it’s a definitely underdeveloped voice.”3
At the pictorial level Memories… it is allowed to convene references of universal culture as unequal as the Venus de Boticelli, whose illustration Sergio caresses with erotic sense, in the pages of a book, to the comic book of Chago Armada and his character Solomon. All the reference and tropological scaffolding of the film has been carefully selected, taking into account the dramatic nature of each moment and the richness of meanings that the film seeks to enhance. An additional example is Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita, which Sergio browses in the bookstore, as a metaphor for the mess that his relationship with Elena will bring.
In the final minutes, Sergio advances against the gusts of waves that break over the Malecon. He’s scruffy and ojerous. Then we see him in his apartment walking back and forth, nervous, betalked by anguish and helplessness. But it is not poisoned, as the original text suggests, but gives prominence to the latest images proposed by the same script: “It dawns. The street. Militiamen. The people, the posters. The artillery deployed…”. Ω

1 Arturo Arango y Juan Antonio García Borrero: Memorias del subdesarrollo. Guion de Edmundo Desnoes y Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, La Habana, ICAIC, 2017, p. 7.
2 Edmundo Desnoes: «Se llamaba Sergio», en Arturo Arango y Juan Antonio García, Memorias del subdesarrollo. Guion de Edmundo Desnoes y Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, ed. cit., pp. 143-146.
3 Rufo Caballero: “Memorias del subdesarrollo: lucidez de la cautela”, en Lágrimas en la lluvia, La Habana, Letras Cubanas, ICAIC, 2008, p. 43.

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