Soy Cuba / Ya Kuba
Soviet Union / Cuba, 1964
Review by Ian Johnston
Posted on 10 December 2007
Source Milestone Ultimate Edition DVD
Mikhail Kalatozov is more than Dziga Vertov’s Man With The Movie Camera, he’s a man in love with the movie camera. His is a camera that flies, plunges, sweeps, twirls, swings, dances, tracks, booms—it’s a dazzling gymnastics of the movie camera that intoxicates the viewer in the same way that Kalatozov is intoxicated by it. Movement is all, in fact there’s a sense that the frankly simplistic characters in the separate stories that make up I Am Cuba are mere starting points around which the camera can dance and from which it can spin off its choreography of camera movement. This is not profound filmmaking - after all, The Cranes Are Flying, the earlier Cannes prize-winner that made Kalatozov’s international reputation, had an otherwise banal storyline that was kicked into life by the energy of the camerawork - and it operates pretty much on the surface of things; but what a surface!
In his drive and ambition, Kalatozov seems a throwback to the heroic age of Soviet filmmaking, when giants like Eisenstein and Dovzhenko remade the nature of what cinema could be. In actual fact, this is where Kalatozov came from. He was already over 60 when I Am Cuba came out, and he got his start in the silent period of the twenties. The documentary A Film About Mikhail Kalatozov by the director’s grandson Mikhail Kalatozishvili (included in this Milestone special edition) includes some fascinating extracts from a 1930 silent The Salt of Svanetia. Of course, it’s impossible to make any properly valid judgments on a film based on extracts like these, but it does seem that Kalatozov’s style in this silent film follows the montage-based practice of Soviet silent cinema rather than extensive long-shot hand-held camerawork of his famous films. Similarly, his last film The Red Tent, in colour and with an international cast, appears ponderous and uninspired. Kalatozov needs black and white to get the effects of luminous, mouth-watering beauty that we experience in both The Cranes Are Flying and, here, in I Am Cuba; and he needs cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky—Urusevsky didn’t shoot The Red Tent, which doubtless explains the lack of interest of the extracts from that film which Kalatozishvili’s documentary offers us.
Urusevsky was clearly a cinematographer of outstanding inventiveness and daring. I Am Cuba isn’t only full of jaw-dropping images of crystalline beauty, such as - to take only one example at random - the low-angle shot of the peasant Mariano riding his donkey in the bottom right-hand corner of the frame, with a couple of trees stretching up tall and thin beside him and most of the surface of the shot being taken up with the twirls and whorls of streaks of clouds in the sky. But the film is also full of shots where you sit there and think: how on Earth did they do that?
Almost every critic focuses on two shots in particular, and I’m going to be no different. In the first, right at the start of the film in a portrayal of decadent Batista-era Havana (a decadence which, incidentally, these Soviet filmmakers seem more than a little fascinated by) the camera starts on a hotel roof with a jazz band and a bikini pageant, literally descends down the side of the building to the swimming pool level, follows first a waiter carrying a tray of drinks among the tourists and then a woman into the swimming pool, and ends up under the water surrounded by a number of swimmers.
The second shot is even more startling. It starts at street level with the funeral cortege of Enrique, a student killed by the chief of police during an anti-Batista demonstration. The camera then begins to rise up into the air above the procession before moving to the side and entering a cigar factory. One of the workers pulls out a Cuban flag, it’s passed along and then unfurled from the open window ahead of us. The camera moves forward and above the flag—and then continues further and further out in mid-air, following the line of the alley along which the funeral procession is moving as the observers on the floors above it shower it with flowers. This is dazzling, bravura filmmaking.
But what is all this extravagance of style here to support? I Am Cuba is a celebration of Castro’s Revolution, an act of solidarity on the part of these Soviet filmmakers (who also included poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko as scriptwriter) in defence of a revolution under attack from the U.S. It’s easy enough to dismiss the series of stories that make up the film as simplistic Marxist propaganda, but let’s acknowledge the enthusiasm and commitment that the filmmakers bring to it. Their vision of Cuba is romantic, fervid, and impassioned, in many ways (for all its basis on eyewitness accounts and documentary research) a poetic fantasy. This is established from the start with the female voiceover that is used to represent the spirit of Cuba: “Soy Cuba… / I am Cuba…”
This narrator sets the overriding theme of Cuba’s exploitation and Cubans’ resistance (“ships took my sugar and left me in tears”) and the four-part story structure enacts this theme to explicit propagandist effect. So, we’re shown exploitation (inevitably, by Americans) first in the city and then the countryside, followed by resistance again first in the city and then the countryside, the four story-threads leading from one to the other and culminating in the film’s final joyful sequence of the victorious revolution.
In the first story, this exploitation is cast in sexual terms as the virginal-looking Maria, girlfriend of street vendor/underground activist Angel, finds work as “Betty” in a decadent nightclub and is pawed over by as crude a bunch as you can get of Ugly Americans. (Americans turn up again en masse in the third episode as a gang of singing sailors - rather as if they’ve wandered out of On The Town - and chase down a lone Cuban girl along the streets of Havana. Incidentally, it’s not the only moment when Kalatozov seems to be channelling the American musical.) Betty’s powerlessness is powerfully conveyed by a camera that whirls around her as she is literally tossed back and forth between the men. She’s powerless, too, to resist spending the night with one of the Americans, who insists on accompanying her back to her shack in the slums, the ultimate act of the unthinking, exploitative tourist, a tourist who the next morning absent-mindedly pops segments of her tangerine into his mouth with as much insouciance as he has shown in using her. The story ends tellingly with the American lost in the slum alleys and confronted with images of the faces of the exploited poor—although, as throughout the film, here Kalatozov himself is not immune from exploiting these faces in his own way.
The second episode moves to the countryside with the story of a sugarcane sharecropper whose debt-ridden struggle for existence (“I used to think the worst in life was death. Now I know better. The worst is life”) is reduced even lower when the land he tenants is sold off to the never-seen United Fruit Company, the ultimate symbol of American economic exploitation of Latin American (cited as such in a host of literary works like Miguel Ángel Asturias’ Banana Trilogy or Pablo Neruda’s poem named after the company). It’s no surprise that we see the farmer’s son and daughter sipping Coca-Colas at the same time as he’s burning down his home and fields in despair. Still, for all that the focus of the episode is on its political message, Kalatozov seems as fascinated by the visual-aesthetic aspects of his storytelling—the high-contrast lights and darks; the bleached-out look of the flashbacks; the striking use of minimal sound effects as the family cuts the cane; the daughter’s musical moment as she dances on and off the back of a truck; and the eroticism of the shot of the daughter, head tipped back, dripping cane juice into her mouth.
With the figure of Enrique the third episode, which returns to the city to deal with the student resistance to Batista’s regime, seems to be offering for the first time a more interesting, more conflicted character than we’ve so far seen. Enrique is a young student who takes it upon himself - against the official activist line - to attempt the assassination of the brutal chief of police. In a lengthy sequence on a rooftop, as Enrique lines up his rifle on the chief of police eating with his young children, the swinging camera and the way the soundtrack cuts out and highlights a street singer below underline Enrique’s moral qualms. But the film quickly abandons this idea of the threat posed to one’s sense of humanity by one’s dedication to a revolutionary cause and offers instead heroic scenes of self-sacrifice and martyrdom for the cause, with both the martyr and the episode itself attaining apotheosis in the stunning funeral sequence.
A fade to black returns us for the second time to the countryside, with at last the appearance of Castro’s guerrillas, the ultimate victors of the Cuban revolution. The moral righteousness of the revolutionary cause is offered through the story of the peasant Mariano, who is initially resistant to the guerrilla that turns up at his home asking for food, particularly as the guerrilla challenges him with one too many cutting-to the-bone questions. But with an air attack bombing him and his family out of their home, Mariano is won over to the revolutionary cause. “You are not shooting to kill,” intones the narrator. You are firing at the past. You are firing to protect your future.” As the lone figure of Mariano, striding through clouds of billowing black smoke, segues into the revolutionaries’ victory march, we are yet again won over - irrespective of the appeal of the propagandist message - by the passion, energy and romanticism of the film’s style. I Am Cuba is never a profound portrait of the nation and its people, it stays on the surface with a touristic fascination for a tropical third-world environment, but in spite of this, thanks to its extravagant stylistics, it soars again and again to thrilling, inspiring heights.