“I used to think the most terrifying thing in life is death. Now I know the most terrifying thing in life is life.” –- Pedro
Watching I Am Cuba is like bearing witness to the most wondrously bizarre, anomalous, anonymous miracle. Here’s a film rooted in the tradition of Soviet cinema, containing the visual poetry of Andrei Tarkovsky, the communist, socialist propaganda of Sergei Eisenstein, the documentarian eye of Dziga Vertov, the organic abstraction of Alexander Dovzhenko, with a cinematic virtuosity that borrows from all of them, while remaining uniquely its own. It also contains the literary poetry of acclaimed (and controversial) Russian writer Yevgeni Yevtushenko, who primarily gets to shine in the monologue interludes that feature an unidentified woman who’s described as “The Voice of Cuba”. It was even produced by the USSR in order to promote international socialism and has a (rather annoying) Russian overdubbed audio track that plays over the film’s dialogue. Oh, but the film is about the Cuban Revolution. The result was a commercial and critical failure, and a film forgotten for 30 years until Martin Scorsese insisted on a full restoration.
I Am Cuba consists of four distinct vignettes centering around the Cuban Revolution, which, in 1959, overthrew the dictatorship of Fulgencio Baptista and replaced it with the socialism of Fidel Castro. The first story is about Maria (Luz María Collazo), a poor young woman living in a shantytown near Havana. Maria hopes to marry her boyfriend, who’s just a poor fruit seller, but she inevitably gets sucked in to the decadent bars which are full of rich Americans willing to spend money on her. The second story is about a sugarcane farmer named Pedro (José Gallardo) who learns he is going to lose his land to United Fruit. This sends him into such despair that he decides to burn his entire harvest. The third story is about Enrique (Raúl García), a student who joins the rebellion but soon faces the suppression forces of the government. The final story is about another farmer named Mariano who is reluctant to get involved in the war, but has no choice once the shockwaves reach even his remote dwelling.
It seems that there is no prominent filmmaking country more in love with the visual power of the camera than Russia. No matter what era you look at they seem to produce directors with an uncanny ability to use the moving picture camera like Tolstoy or Dostoevsky used a pen. But there’s frequently been a disconnect between the masterful cinematic qualities of Russian cinema and the controversial, objectionable, somewhat soulless propaganda they’ve been used to depict. It’s probably why Tarkovsky has been one of the few Russian directors who’s loved as much as he’s admired, because he was a director more concerned with poetry, metaphysics and philosophy rather than social politics. But too often cinephiles and scholars feel the need to excuse the overwrought, one-sided, naïve nationalism of films like Battleship Potemkin in favor of focusing attention on their cinematic importance.
Unfortunately, I Am Cuba is a film that falls into that “fascinating cinema, ignorable storytelling” category. But when cinema is this fascinating, it’s hard to object. Kalatozov’s camera is a thing of magnificent beauty and power. Adjectives like “stunning” and “breathtaking” seem woefully inadequate to capture its grandeur. Throughout the film, Kalatazov utilizes every idiosyncratic visual device that’s been deployed since the birth of cinema. I Am Cuba is one of those films to which a young filmmaker could return in perpetuity for visual inspiration and never manage to bleed the well dry. The film’s visual artistry seems incomprehensible in the wake of its immense diversity; where does one even begin to catalogue its mastery?
Let’s start at the beginning with a long shot that begins at the top of a hotel and glides down through the party, frequently switching vantage and focal points, before diving into the pool. Reportedly this was done handheld passing between crew members. The lens was equipped with a spinning glass disc taken from a submarine periscope used to eliminate any water drops. This shot alone would be the centerpiece of most any other film (and, indeed, it bears resemblance to a similar shot in PT Anderson’s Boogie Nights), but in I Am Cuba it’s merely the tip of the iceberg. When Kalatozov moves into the bars the camera is able to move and dance with riveting visceral energy. Wide lenses, Dutch angles, and the camera’s omni-kinesis create startling parallactic, optical illusions and angular exaggerations that add an almost 3-dimensional quality to the images… and all of this is just within the first story!
The second story moves out of the boisterous bars and into the quiet solitude of the farmlands. Here, Kalatozov brilliantly deploys low angles and color filters to create high contrast black-and-white images—images that seem to recall the German Expressionists—that etch his silhouetted characters against an expressively oppressive dark-gray sky. Later, a water effect creates a cascade across the lens, perhaps standing in as contrast juxtaposition against the draught-dried land. When Pedro flies into a rage, his madness is echoed by the diagonal jerks of the camera through the sugarcane fields. The consuming inferno that ends the section is a vivid reminder of the same kind of fire in Malick’s Days of Heaven.
The fire that ends the second section seems to editorially connect to the third, in which a kid throws a Molotov Cocktail at a drive-in cinema screen as the cars blaze out towards the exit, sending the highway lights flashing by like jewels on a necklace. This section is a bit more drama-centric than the others, focusing on the efforts of the group’s planned rebellion. It ends with them facing the high-pressure water hoses of the law—reminiscent of a similar scene in Eisenstein’s Strike. Perhaps the most tragic of the four stories, this section ends with another unbelievable long take that begins with a camera going in one window, winding through a building, going upstairs, exiting through another window, and following a funeral procession several stories below.
The final section returns to the pastoral setting of the second and is more simply filmed than the others. One key feature of this section is the subtle motif of Mariano’s wife grinding up something (perhaps food) with a large mortar and pestle. The majority of this section involves Mariano, his wife and children attempting to escape the bombing over head. When he returns to find his home destroyed, the ghostly echoes of the mortar and pestle ring in his head (this in itself is an echo of the third section in which Enrique is haunted by the song of a man on the street). If the third section was the most tragic, this section is the most dramatic, ending with Mariano heading into battle looking to take a gun off another soldier to fight.
Perhaps the fact that I’ve spent four paragraphs and 500 words describing the visuals, but almost none really describing the story, characters, or themes is a red flag for many out there. Ultimately, I Am Cuba is very much a film in that Soviet tradition that’s impossible not to marvel at its cinematic language, but equally impossible not to scoff at its storytelling and propaganda. The best we can do is try to ignore the content and simply allow ourselves to become intoxicated by Kalatozov’s visuals. This is cinema at its most inventive, treating the “moving picture” part of the movies with the utmost importance and eminent artistry. At the end of the day, the lack of compelling story and characters seem a small price to pay for such a thing.