When Mikhail Kalatozov's I Am Cuba—a long-lost, phantasmagoric Cuban-Soviet propaganda film from 1964—was rediscovered and reissued in late 1995 by Milestone (with the prominent support of Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola), critic Terrence Rafferty wrote the following in his New Yorker review: "They're going to be carrying ravished film students out of the theaters on stretchers."
That's about right. Personally speaking, I certainly needed medical assistance to reattach my jaw, which had dropped permanently to the floor during one of the film's famed tracking shots. Though I Am Cuba is fascinating enough as an historical footnote—and I'll get into that in a second—the reason it endures is almost exclusively cinematic: Given the virtually unlimited resources of two countries at their disposal, Russian director Kalatozov (The Cranes Are Flying) and his cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky turned the newly Communist Cuba into a lush playground where they could experiment with wide-angle lenses, whooshing camera moves, and towering crane shots held for minutes at a time. Their assignment was to affirm the revolutionary spirit that had just given birth to a new Cuba, but within those broad parameters, they were free to pull off all the technical wonderments they could dream up. After all, in a movie where the country itself serves as voiceover narrator, there's no danger in getting bogged down in the particulars of character.
Why did it take a film as striking as I Am Cuba so long to get rediscovered in America? Partly because nobody knew to discover it. By 1964, the U.S. had severed all diplomatic and trade relations with Fidel Castro's government, and in doing so, severed the cultural exchange between the two countries as well. (A shot of a "Cinerama" theater in a city backdrop in I Am Cuba suggests the impact Hollywood movies once had there, as does a sequence set in a Batista-era drive-in.) Always eager to partner with its new comrades—as the contemporaneous Cuban Missile Crisis would attest—the Soviet government swooped in to co-produce a movie about the Cuban revolution, and I Am Cuba was the strange, beautiful, misbegotten lovechild that resulted from the marriage.
Unfortunately, the completed film tanked with both the Cubans and the Russians. The 2005 documentary I Am Cuba: The Siberian Mammoth—a solid primer on the film, if not a particularly distinguished one—tracks down some of the crew members on the arduous 14-month shoot, many of whom are baffled that the project they remember as a total disaster has any appreciators at all. Basically, the Cubans thought the camera pyrotechnics overwhelmed and distorted the realities of the uprising, and leaned heavily on clichéd, simplistic portraits of their people. On their end, the Soviets didn't care for the inadvertently seductive portrait of Western excess in the film's early section. I'd argue that both camps were completely right—and yet I Am Cuba is still magnificent.
Maybe the problem is that revolutionary cinema probably plays better before the revolution than after it, when people are done dreaming of a new, idealistic world and have started living in the one that they've got. As such, I Am Cuba is a bit like a car salesmen who keeps making his pitch after a customer has driven the lemon off the lot. Granted, a generation of Soviet silent filmmakers produced masterpieces like Potemkin and Earth after the Russian Revolution, but those films were homegrown; Kalatozov, Urusevsky, and Yevgeni Yevtushenko, the poet who co-wrote the script, were coming to Cuba as outsiders to the culture, and the natives likely didn't appreciate the condescension.
Nevertheless, the four vignettes that comprise the film have a poetic simplicity, building from personal hardships and tragedy to the triumphant movement of the collective. The first and most affecting segment takes place in a decadent Havana, where Westerners indulge in casinos, luxury hotels, and bars—and exploit desperately poor locals willing to do anything to get by. This includes Maria, a virginal beauty (with a giant crucifix around her neck, no less) who's destined to marry a fruit vendor, but joins the legions of exotic prostitutes at a Western bar. When a john insists they go back to her place—a tin-roofed shack in a sprawling shantytown—we catch a glimpse of how Havana's other half lives.
From there, the other three segments depict Cubans taking action: The second features a sugarcane farmer who takes drastic measures after losing his land and his home to a fruit company. The third follows a student revolutionary who fails to carry out a political assassination but summons the courage to rally the people to disbelieve false reports of Castro's death and march against the authorities. The last heads into the mountains, finding a farmer who leaves his family behind to join the revolutionaries as they battle in the countryside and forge their way, arm-in-arm, to a triumphant new day in the capital.
As the opening shot gently descends upon the Cuban coast via helicopter and tracks along palm trees rendered almost silver by the black-and-white photography, I Am Cuba immediately lulls you into a hypnotic state—intended, no doubt, to make you more receptive to its ideas. Most of the segments end with Cuba herself narrating, and here she talks about how Christopher Columbus once called the island "the most beautiful land ever seen by human eyes." "Gracias, Señor Columbus," says Cuba, before adding that the explorer's ships "took my sugar and left me in tears."
Then we get to the film's most famous shot, which begins with the Western revelers gathered for a beauty contest on a hotel rooftop, then descends several floors down to the pool, then goes into the pool and shoots the action underwater. Kalatozov and Urusevsky reportedly had a special submarine periscope cleaner made available so they could dip in and out of the water without any drops screwing up the lens. (Paul Thomas Anderson was so impressed that he lifted the shot wholesale for Boogie Nights.) Here are the two clips side-by-side, the first from I Am Cuba and the second from Boogie Nights:
I Am Cuba is filled with extraordinary long takes like these, but the shots are never static: Kalatozov and Urusevsky believed in what they called the "emotional camera," a handheld technique that uses constant movement to express the characters' feelings. (It's also utilized in Kalatozov's equally wonderful—and far less kitschy—WWII romance from six years earlier, The Cranes Are Flying, which is available on Criterion DVD.) Since the film traffics in symbols more than flesh-and-blood people, the camera provides much of the drama, and there's hardly a shot that isn't striking or purposeful. When the farmer in the second segment takes out his anguish on the sugarcane, for example, the camera takes the point-of-view of his machete, slashing furiously up and down. Then later, when he sends his grown children to town to spend his last peso, the camera becomes a blissed-out extension of his daughter as she dances to a song on the jukebox. We know these characters as types, and the film does nothing to complicate them—which is proper, because that's how propaganda works. But where a run-of-the-mill propaganda film might drive home its Communist sentiments with, say, a hammer and sickle, Kalatozov and Urusevsky's technical acrobatics carry them across with dazzling, unceasing sensuality.
Loving I Am Cuba does come with a few caveats, however, since its politics are naïve at best, and more often just laughable. (Another quibble: The dialogue is spoken and then immediately overdubbed in Russian, which takes some getting used to.) International productions like this one are notoriously tone-deaf anyway, but whenever anyone lifts their voice—be it a character or "Cuba"—it breaks the spell cast by imagery that speaks far more eloquently. For example, having a soulless Westerner offer to buy a young woman's crucifix ("I collect crucifixes") after despoiling her the night before is absurdly predatory, yet the subsequent sequence of the man getting lost in the endless Havana slums has breathtaking power. Then there's the purple narration from Cuba herself, with leaden passages like this one: "Sometimes it seems to me that the sap of my palm trees is full of blood. Sometimes it seems that the murmuring sounds around us are not the ocean but choked-back tears. Who answers for this blood? Who is responsible for these tears?" (Cut to: Batista!)
When I Am Cuba finally premièred in the United States, there was 30 years' safe distance from the revolutionary ideals that summoned it into existence. Though it remains a fascinating accident of history, the film lives on as the ultimate expression of what great filmmakers can do when they have the world at their disposal. (Canny of me to follow up Cult On The Cheap month with its opposite, huh?) This is cinema with a capital "C," and the budding freshman-year socialist in many of us—the one that signed up for some newsletter that will no doubt quash any later bid for public office—might find our hearts swelling a bit at times. When faced with shots like the following bird's-eye view of a martyr's funeral procession, what else can you say but "Viva Cuba!"?
Next week: The Rules Of Attraction
May 15: Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
May 22: Fast, Cheap & Out Of Control
May 29: Battle Royale