Sergio is a bourgeois dilettante who prefers to stay on in Cuba when his wife and family decide to leave the country for the United States in the aftermath of Fidel Castro’s Communist revolution in 1959. A man of leisure, he spends his days pondering his decision and his life; ruminating on the socio-politics of the country’s new leaders, and chasing – and finally seducing – a young woman, Elena. Like the classic flíÂ¢neur he wanders aimlessly about the streets of Havana, meditating on the true meaning behind the agitprop facade which continuously plays out on his TV. Was the human death toll worth it, and why are the philosophers and intellectuals rarely out there on the barricades, taking a bullet for the revolution like the proletariat?
These questions arise from Sergio’s sense of alienation – an existentialist self-examination and enquiry into not just Communist philosophy, but life’s meaning and its inherent ethical quagmire of politics, psychology, sociology, economics, gender and even evolutionary Darwinism, all in the best tradition of a Socialist symposium – an example of which he witnesses in a nonchalant, aloof manner.
Memories has no plot as such; the events play out like a semi-improvisatory fugue and the whiplash cutting, abstrusely edited soundtrack and neo-realist ambience remind one – perhaps too easily – of 60s Godard. Add to this the film’s overt political conceit and this sensibility could be construed as somewhat plagiaristic. Is Alea paying homage to Godard or is it just a case of him being responsive to the zeitgeist of the time and independently creating a Cuban corollary to the European New Wave? In retrospect it is hard to determine, and perhaps the film’s fragmented style is, after all, well suited to the first-person internal musings of the protagonist.
Sergio is at a crossroads in his life – he’s been unfaithful to his wife, doesn’t believe in the redemptive power of politics and finds life generally absurd – a bona fide mid-life identity crisis corresponding to the Cuban missile crisis which unsettlingly rumbles along in the background. He is disengaged from life (epitomised by the tape recordings he surreptitiously makes of his estranged wife), analysing the world around him, abstractedly, from a distance; but when he is wrongly accused of exploiting and raping Elena, the world suddenly closes in on him and he becomes re-sensitised to reality and his raw emotions. He feels incomprehension and fear when questioned in court and the chasm between class-driven, state-sanctioned blind ‘justice’ and a higher moral law is thrown into sharp relief. Sergio’s subversive and questioning attitude leads to a grim and unwarranted personal ordeal which ultimately reflects the wider social crisis and fundamental inhumanity contained within any dogmatic, autocratic political system like Communism.
Towards the end of the film Alea succinctly delineates the rising tension of the missile crisis by having Sergio continually play with his Zippo lighter – in a sequence interspersed with dramatic newsreel footage from the TV news – its rhythmic clicking sound acting as the countdown to a very possible apocalypse. Thankfully, reason prevailed in those surreal, knife-edge moments, and Memories is a lasting legacy of that transformative, chaotic and sharply focused era.
From July 10-17 Barbican Film presents Cine Cuba, a season that explores the heart of Cuban Cinema, with gems from the Havana archives plus new works and films which celebrate Cuba’s musical heritage. More information on the Barbican website.