I Am Cuba (DVD)

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I Am Cuba (DVD)

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Rescued from obscurity by Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, Mikhail Kalatozov's I Am Cuba is sustained ecstasy for cinephiles, a dreamlike phantasmagoria of technique disguised as a pro-Castro propaganda film. Kalatozov (The Cranes Are Flying), once Stalin's head of production, was dispatched to make the film a week after the Cuban Missile Crisis, so each of its vignettes serves to reinforce Communist ideals as an answer to capitalist (primarily American) exploitation. There's evidence that the film was viewed as impossibly naïve at the time—it flopped in both the Soviet Union and Cuba—and it certainly seems that way now, but its pleasures are largely dissociated from any thematic agenda. Photographed in a B&W monochrome so rich and luxuriant that every image could be mounted on a gallery wall, I Am Cuba serves as a showcase for Kalatozov's "emotional camera," his term for the unbroken, astonishingly elaborate handheld takes that he strings into a narrative. Working from a restored print, Milestone's fine DVD transfer is especially useful for isolating individual shots. For example, there's the one that starts by roving through a beauty pageant on a hotel rooftop, descends five floors to a poolside party below, and then follows a woman into water. (Paul Thomas Anderson admits to copping this shot for Boogie Nights.) Or there's the one that tracks past cigar makers on an open-air balcony, only to soar off into a gliding bird's-eye view of a martyr's funeral procession on the streets below, as if the cameraman has somehow sprouted wings. The stories themselves—a virtuous woman forced into prostituting herself to wealthy Americans, an old sugarcane farmer who burns his land in defiance of the United Fruit Company, a college student driven by leadership in the revolution—are bluntly obvious in their intent. But I Am Cuba is still propaganda of the first order, a beautiful and sensually overwhelming tribute to the land and its people.

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