Friday July 21, 1995
Mikhail Kalatozov's 1964 "I Am Cuba" is a great poetic epic that blends the stirring visual daring of Russia's cinema of revolution with an intoxicating Latin sensuality.
It is a triumph of collaborative strategy, with Kalatozov and his dazzling cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky in perfect rapport with each other and with their writers, renowned poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko and eminent Cuban novelist Enrique Pineda Barnet. It is said that Kalatozov, best known for "The Cranes Are Flying" (1958), a World War II romance of uncommon passion and candor (and a big art-house success in the United States), wanted to make a "Potemkin" for Castro's revolution and for the people of Cuba, and he certainly succeeded.
"I Am Cuba," composed of four episodes set in late 1956, when Castro was raising an army in the Sierra Maestra, had apparently not been shown outside the Soviet Union or Cuba until it was presented at the Telluride Film Festival in 1992.
It is a major discovery, and the long delay in its U.S. release has resulted in its impact compounding irony within irony. That's because the revolution that was to wipe away the corruption of the Batista regime is now, three decades later, mired in economic catastrophe and marked by a bleak history regarding human rights.
The film inescapably confronts American audiences with our own sorry role in Cuba's misery, past and present, in that it reminds us that if the United States was to such a large extent responsible for Batista, it is also responsible for Castro. The creative decision to go for a poetic narrative, giving the film the shape of a shimmering fable, pays off in two ways: It allows the film to transcend the level of propaganda, and in Urusevsky's restless, probing camera, it also allows us to share the filmmakers' sense of continual discovery.
"I Am Cuba," which has a glorious, emotion-charged score by Carlos Farin~as, is a superb example of imaginative planning yielding an effect of constant spontaneity.
Punctuated by stanzas of the poem that gives the film its title, it most resembles in style, not surprisingly, Sergei Eisenstein's incomplete "Que Viva Mexico" in its folkloric passages. In its immediacy and passion, it brings to mind the volatile cinema of revolutionary Cuba itself and of Allende's Chile as well as the films of the Russian masters. It is at its most Soviet in spirit in its stirring but doctrinaire finish.
In the opening stanza of that poem, Columbus' fateful remark, "This is the most beautiful land ever seen by human eyes," accompanies a Fellini-like helicopter shot over the Cuban coast, capturing images of poverty before settling on a Havana hotel rooftop, where a beauty contest is in progress.
Soon we're swept up in a swirl of driving Afro-Cuban music and dance as the least boorish of several American businessmen (noted French actor Jean Bouise) spends the night with a beautiful, reluctant prostitute (Luz Maria Collazo) only to awaken in a vast makeshift village of far greater poverty than he had ever imagined.
Kalatozov next acquaints us with a worn peasant (Jose Gallardo), who, as he looks out into a rainstorm, recalls how he lost everything when he was duped into leasing his sugar cane land only to have it sold out from under him to the United Fruit Co.
The camera then picks out a young man (Raul Garcia), part of a group of students who throw Molotov cocktails at a drive-in screen showing a newsreel celebrating U.S.-Cuba relations; this sequence, depicting the ever-widening student-led anti-government demonstrations, culminates with one of the most bravura tracking shots ever attempted.
Appropriately, "I Am Cuba" concludes in the ruggedly beautiful Sierra Maestra with tremendous cumulative power as a peasant casts his lot with Castro's guerrillas. In this post-Soviet era, however, the idealistic zeal that fuels all of this fiery film takes on a cast that's truly tragic.
I Am Cuba, 1995. Unrated. A Milestone Film release of a Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese presentation of a co-production of Mosfilm (U.S.S.R.) and ICAIC (Cuba). Producer-director Mikhail Kalatozov. Screenplay by Yevgeny Yevtushenko and Enrique Pineda Barnet. Cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky. Editor N. Glagoleva. Artistic consultation and costumes Rene Portocarrero. Music Caroles Farin~as. Set designer Yevgeny Svidetlev. Choreographer A. Suez. In Spanish and English, with Russian voice-over and English subtitles. Running time: 2 hours, 21 minutes. Luz Maria Collazo as Maria/Betty. Jose Gallardo as Pedro. Raul Garcia as Enrique. Jean Bouise as Jim.