Thursday, July 28, 2016

Memorias del subdesarrollo

The Cuban director Tomás Gutiérrez Alea's film Memorias del subdesarrollo (English title: Memories of Underdevelopment) is the most stunning, astonishing, and deep exposure of colonialism that I have ever seen or read or witnessed in any form in my life, and I doubt if it can be surpassed: the extraordinary work, much filmed stream-of-consciousness-like in the manner of Resnais's admirable La guerre est finie, a film only two years older, can be watched and rewatched dozens of times by me, for every frame is a revelation, every subtle reference is power-packed, meaning-punched.

The film is decorated with several references: of course, Cuba's political situation in those heady days when Castro took over, Kennedy's failed missile deployment, the women's emancipation as understood and advocated by the leftists. But that is merely, though not unsubstantial, flesh: at the dark heart of the film is one theme, or if you may, two—the intellectual's cowardliness, and the coloniser's (here the Spaniard's) civilising mission. For me, both are one, intertwined closely: for you, they may be two themes. And amid all this, the film is highly charged erotically: I could watch this film multiple times even just for its erotic impulse, preferring it to the best porn. The eroticism is not misplaced: for an intellectual is nothing but someone who delights in and is unable to get out of the habit of excessive intellectual masturbation without going ever to the length of actual intellectual sex—unless it be done for peeps.

Sergio Corrieri is the intellectual, admirably played by Sergio Carmona Mendoyo. He knows his disease: he is after all not a fake intellectual, but a proper one. And he cultivates himself in the usual, "European" (as mentioned by Sergio himself) manner: he goes to musuems and galleries and interminable conferences, sees artefacts of that another intellectual, Hemingway, and lives a smug life in high expectations of himself, dashed occasionally when he realises that he comes up too short. But the hallmark of an intellectual are not these habits: they may get developed in many of all ilk. The hallmark is the inability to take anything else seriously except one's own self, the hallmark is this cowardliness to embrace life in its diversity: it is this that leads to a constant self-abuse, and that leads to see others as "underdeveloped." It is here that the civilising mission of the West ties in: for there was the imperialism of Japan and Russia and of the tsars and sultans, and there was the missionary-spirited colonialism of countries such as Spain, France, Portugal and the UK. Both were quite different.

Sergio makes a remarkably acute observation about Cubans, though he draws the conclusion of underdevelopedness: the spirit of adaptability, the tendency of adjustability in Cubans. He bemoans this lack of consistency, this lack of firm vision. It is here that he also gives a fine glimpse into colonialism's dark secret, often misunderstood. Many people dismiss the coloniser's civilised pretence as just an excuse to dominate someone else, a stance take: but it's not often the case. The civiliser indeed belabours under this fancy. Many people do carry the feeling that they are "more developed", that the other needs to be taught and educated: the one with a steely determination, a far-reaching vision is unable to digest that another can be happy in all circumstances. The steely visionary then dismisses the seemingly pliant one as a beast, an animal, not developed to his human faculties: just as gentleness is often misunderstood as submission in this world, so does the ability to remain happy, even when it comes from the special ability to not to take oneself very seriously, is often mistaken as vacuity. The coloniser, like Sergio, in fact suffers: lacking flexibility, he dominates peoples and women to his liking, trying to make the world cohere to him, instead of just enjoying the variety. The really amazing thing is that such a message is hard to carry in a film, in any kind of entertaining format: but Gutiérrez does it with aplomb, sowing questions and insights with fine fecundity in the viewer's mind.

Like many really good films, it starts slightly ramblingly, a bit slowly, a bit reluctantly. But ten to fifteen minutes into it, and you are sucked into it. An irony would be that such a film would most probably be also watched by many intellectuals, but probably, hopefully, it hits home for some of them and leads them to question their way of life. Life is not PhDs and conferences and acclaim; it's passion, not for oneself, but for life's beauty, which comes in all tastes, bitter and sweet included.