Thursday, December 15, 2011

Memorias del Subdesarrollo review

Memorias del Subdesarrollo is one of the seminal films of Latin America, and still amongst people’s favorites. However, it takes on many patriarchical elements of nationalist revolution. The first scene of the film is critical for this analysis. Memorias opens with a crowd of people dancing at night, outside. A point-of-view shot, through a handheld camera directs the viewer along the crowd of sweaty, ecstatic bodies. Several jump cuts are made to the instruments being played; the song is of an Afro-Cuban flavor: Donde esta Teresa? by Pello “el Afrokán.” A gunshot goes off. A long shot, bird’s eye view, displays the crowd dispersing. After a brief moment of chaos, the camera returns to the face of an Afro-Cuban woman with an intense gaze, who could be said to be the incarnation of the “Teresa” the song is asking the audience to search for. An extreme close up of her face is shown, frozen, as the scene ends.
This scene, and in particular, this last shot, is meant to capture the attention of the audience. The spectator’s eyes cannot avert from the woman’s stare, and so the implication follows that the spectator has been transported from a position of aloof voyeurism to one of active participation. But what is meant by the absolute indifference to the eruption of violence that took place just a second before the spectator was transfixed by this woman’s gaze? The attention of the audience is directed solely at this woman. The impact of this neglect is doubly magnified when the scene repeats again in the film. In this second scene, the audience understands that Sergio was present during the first scene, and so this second one is to serve as a flashback. The point-of-view shot, then, is transferred to his very eyes, witnessing this scene. Thus, if the gunshot in the first scene triggered merely a brief, inattentive glance from the camera, the gunshot in the second scene is nothing but a sign of comfort. Furthermore, the change of music to Leo Brouwer’s inharmonious melody in this repeated sequence betrays a completely different mood altogether. Namely, the scene truly becomes a double act of detachment: that of Sergio from the crowd, and that of the audience from the scene/Sergio. The process of de-alienation is not at all functioning as it was intended: firstly, the scene was meant to do the opposite (capture our attention, prompt identification with the characters), and secondly, it is desensitizing the audience to the effects of climactic moments of violence.
Another point in Memorias that is inundated with meaning because of its employment of repetition is the scene with recurrent clips taken right out of Hollywood, where women are shown either in the nude or yielding to men’s seduction. Prior to this montage and this scene, Sergio had been in his apartment watching television, where a clip of Marilyn Monroe singing and Guantánamo Bay are juxtaposed. He turns off the TV. Later, during the scene of the montage, Sergio is actively courting Elena, a girl of a working class background who yearns to act for the ICAIC. They have the following dialogue:
Sergio: Why do you want to be in films?
Elena: Because I’m tried of always being the same. That way I can be someone else without people thinking I’m crazy. I want to be able to unfold my personality.
Sergio: But all those characters in theatre and film are like broken records. The only thing an actress does it to repeat the same gestures and the same words a thousand times. The same gestures and the same words…the same gestures and the same words…
It is from here that the montage is unleashed. The problem here arises on several levels, and it is particularly menacing because of what the sequence can suggest about women and sex. Namely, Gutiérrez Alea, like Sergio, is stripping these images of their erotic charge by repeating them – flattening their meaning and annihilating their potential to be described as sexist. Not only that, but Elena comes to be represented by those nude and obsequious women. Therefore, the scene can only be judged as a confirmation of the Hollywood model: capitalist and patriarchic in nature.

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