Released in that mythical year of 1968, Tomás Gutiérrez Alea's Memories of Underdevelopment is, like its main character, both part of and apart from its time. While Argentine revolutionaries Fernando Ezequiel Solanas and Octavio Getino were penning guerrilla filmmaking manifesto “Towards a Third Cinema” and Jean-Luc Godard was jettisoning mainstream production for an uncompromising foray into radical Marxism, Underdevelopment spoke the international language of political modernism (montage, found footage, self-reflexivity) in order to look back on an actually successful revolution in dejection and frustration. REDCAT's pairing of this landmark of Latin American cinema with Miguel Coyula's unofficial sequel, Memories of Overdevelopment, highlights the enduring importance of the former and the avant-garde heritage sought and earned by the latter.
Despite being held from American distribution until 1973, the eventual worldwide recognition of Underdevelopment as one of Cuba's finest films speaks as much for the frozen moment it captures as for its unimpeachable quality. Alea based the work on Edmundo Desnoes' Nausea-esque novel, the diary of a bourgeois intellectual sticking it out in post–revolution Cuba even as his mother, father and wife flee to America. An isolated film about an isolated man in an isolated country, Underdevelopment faithfully reproduces in wry voice-overs, abrupt flashbacks and collage-style montages protagonist Sergio's disgust with the spoiled materialism of the class to which he belongs, the “underdeveloped” state of his nation's social, industrial and cultural aspirations, and the revolution he's certain won't be able to change either.
The action takes place just before and during the buildup to the Cuban Missile Crisis, but Sergio's ennui encapsulates the no-man's-land of Cuba in 1968 and — especially in light of Castro's recent admission that communism hasn't quite worked out — Cuba today. “I'm not like them!” he exclaims about his fellow countrymen, but just like The People he refuses to join, Sergio is equally unable “to sustain a feeling, an idea, without falling apart.” Attempting to fill the void by remembering, using and fantasizing about the women in his life, Sergio's cynicism proves as paralyzing as the political and social forces he ineffectually rails against.
Underdevelopment ends on a note of lingering tension, the missile crisis having ended without incident but the potential for nuclear warfare still very much on the horizon.
Based on Desnoes' follow-up to his best-known work, Memories of Overdevelopment, which premiered at Sundance in January, finds Sergio as alienated as ever in a post–Cold War world, where the dread of destruction has diffused into personal chaos. Having left the island after a run-in with censorship, the aging professor is settled into a long life of academic mediocrity at an unnamed New York university, when one of his pornographic X-Acto knife collages ends up in the department chair's hands.
The collages make an apropos metaphor: Even more than Alea's film, Overdevelopment digests and recombines various media — from magazine advertisements and movie scenes to religious iconography and news footage, all augmented and accompanied by animation — in order to evoke Sergio's further cross-cultural confusion and disorientation. Director Coyula's reliance on Final Cut Pro hyper-rapidity is frequently numbing, but the overall effect retains impact: This Sergio is a man who hasn't mellowed with age but has instead unraveled, finally divorced from his country and yet failing to find an identity in his adopted home.
Desnoes' sequel to Underdevelopment is unavailable in the States, but the Coyula adaptation emphasizes autobiography to an even greater degree than its predecessor. In both the novel and film version of Underdevelopment, Sergio's family remained an abstraction, as if their flight from Cuba made them psychologically as well as physically distant. Overdevelopment, on the other hand, is haunted from the outset by Sergio's childhood memory of his aunt's death and his estranged brother's recent HIV diagnosis. Women are still a ubiquitous obsession, but the urge to dominate and manipulate has transformed into a humbled need for tenderness.
Several generations younger than Desnoes and working in digital video, Coyula's understanding of this new Sergio is less caught up in the trends of political cinema than concerned with the humanistic possibilities of experimental forms. So while Sergio continually derides himself for perpetual immaturity, his near-epic journey (no longer sequestered, his travels take him to several countries) propels him to deeper levels of awareness.
Which doesn't make the process any less painful. While Underdevelopment charted the inner disintegration of a man made an alien in his own homeland, Overdevelopment and its far-side-of-the-moon ending suggest self-discovery may only be possible by removing oneself from humanity altogether.
BETWEEN DISPLACEMENT AND NOSTALGIA: CONFLICTED MEMORIES OF CUBA | Oct. 23, 6:30 p.m. | REDCAT at Walt Disney Concert Hall | redcat.org