Many of us who are obsessed with movies know about the Criterion Collection – we may even own a number of their DVDs, Blu-Rays or box sets if we’re lucky enough to afford them. However, a glance through their titles will reveal a lack of love for Latin American cinema. There are only a small handful of titles like Lucrecia Martel’s La Cienega and Guillermo del Toro’s Cronos represented in the dozens of titles from Europe or Asia and slim offerings from Africa.
But a few months ago, the company announced it would be adding not just one title but two to their collection in August. The first was The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez, a bilingual western starring Edward James Olmos that resonates today as much as it did when it was first released in the 80s. The next would be the long-awaited release of the restored version of one of Cuban cinema’s greatest movies Memorias del subdesrollo (Memories of Underdevelopment). Each movie would come with bonus material to give viewers an in-depth look at these productions, like a film school lecture inside every case.
I can’t understate the feeling of watching a movie like The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez when fear and hatred are increasingly threatening Latinx communities. Due to an unfortunate mistranslation, a skirmish leaves a sheriff dead and Gregorio Cortez (Olmos) a wanted man. The Mexican-American farmer flees vigilante justice, and in their inability to catch the suspect, white mobs lynched and killed thousands of Mexicans in Texas. Cortez becomes a kind of folk hero for surviving what looked like certain death. Olmos and director Robert M. Young (who directed Alambrista, which is also a part of the Criterion Collection) brought this underseen chapter in US history back into the light of day for PBS audiences. With the film’s new release, it’s now a story we can reckon with today.
Another remarkable aspect of the drama is that it’s a bilingual movie in both Spanish and English. The events of the crime play differently if you understand both languages and realize the mistranslation as it happens. True to the filmmaker’s intentions, the Criterion version doesn’t have subtitles for the Spanish or English dialogue in the movie. If you don’t speak both languages, eventually the facts of the case are discussed by a number of different characters on either side of the language barrier.
The film’s supplemental extras help the viewer appreciate what a small miracle it is that this production exists at all. Interviews with Olmos, author Chon A. Noriega and cast and crew reveal things like the independent movie’s small budget (a million dollars for the western), its place in Chicano film history, and how the team offered free screenings to build the word of mouth. Now that it’s become one of the few U.S. Latinx stories to be featured in the Criterion Collection, hopefully more people will see The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez than they did in its limited theatrical run.
Hailed as one Cuban cinema’s most important films, Memories of Underdevelopment comes to the collection as a long-established international classic. Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s landmark drama follows a disenchanted man named Sergio (Sergio Corrieri) through the streets of Havana and the many thoughts he has about the past Cuba was leaving behind and the Revolutionary future it was promising. A cynic at heart, Sergio questions aspects of Cuba’s Revolution, which still is a remarkable feat to see in a project produced with the blessing of the island’s government. Stylistically, the film blends the aesthetics of Italian neorealism and the French New Wave while unpacking Cuba’s tortured political history through documentary-like segues. The movie’s present does not exist without its past.
The extras for Memories of Underdevelopment aren’t just a window into Sergio’s foggy mind, but a look at Cuban cinema as a whole. Critics B. Ruby Rich and José Antonio Évora help tie the movie to its place in history, and a touching documentary by Gutiérrez Alea’s widow, Mirta Ibarra, gives a behind-scenes-look at the director’s movies like Memories of Underdevelopment, The Twelve Chairs, and Strawberry and Chocolate.
The releases of The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez and Memories of Underdevelopment come at a time when much of Hollywood and the media are denying us our stories. It may feel antithetical to wait for a company or studio to canonize our art, but the resources and attention lavished on these projects mean more audiences will get to see a character like Cortez as a hero and hear complicated stories like Sergio’s to break the notion that we are a monolith. If there is power in representation, then there’s also a power in rescuing our cinematic history and sharing it with those who haven’t heard of or seen these movies before.