Soy Cuba/Ya Kuba

(I Am Cuba, Soviet Union/Cuba - 1964)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Luz Maria Collazo, Sergio Corrieri, Jose Gallardo, Raul Garcia, Luisa Maria Jimenez, Mario Gonzalez Broche
Genre: Drama/Propaganda
Director: Mikheil Kalatozov
Screenplay: Enrique Pinedo Barnet & Yevgeni Yevtushenko
Cinematography: Sergei Urusevsky
Composer: Carlos Farinas
Runtime: 141 minutes

If there's a director that delivers more impossibly brilliant shots than Mikheil Kalatozov please let me know who they are so I can gaze in awe at the beauty of their compositions. Kalatozov started out as a cinematographer in 1926, but by 1927 he was shooting his own films. Within a few years he started hiring a cinematographer, but if there was any change it was that two guys willing to try anything was better than one.

Most cinematographers turned directors slowly move away from developing the cinematography in their films, often getting bogged down or distracted by the other aspects. What amazes me about Kalatozov is how far ahead of his time his films were visually. I've seen four of his films, and my reaction to the first three was the same, whoever stamped the date on there must have made a mistake. What's more impressive about this feat, is there's a 34 year gap between the oldest, Jim Shvante (Salt for Svanetia) and the newest I Am Cuba.

There's a common misconception that technology allows for new and better things to be done in film. Once in a while it's true, but for the most part technology doesn't invent anything, it simply makes it easier to do things that have already been attempted if not accomplished. Ultimately, it's almost always the artist. You can take your lightweight camera, your Steadicam, your state of the art electronic rigging devices, and so on and so forth, but there are a handful of sequences in I Am Cuba that are just so far above anything I've seen that it won't matter. Kalatozov was just so endlessly imaginative, so completely audacious in the stuff he was able to pull off, and I still can't figure out how the hell he did it.

The main characteristic of Kalatozov's shots is that they constantly move. He loves the tracking shot, and as much as I love and respect the work of Stanley Kubrick, Kalatozov is the one that should come to mind when speaking of it. The shots he demonstrates in his best known film, Letjat zhuravli (The Cranes are Flying), which won the Golden Palm at Cannes, are just astonishing, and that much more so when you consider they were done in 1957.

Sergei M. Eisenstein is one of the Russian directors that have overshadowed Kalatozov. His invention and signature, montage, was important to Kalatozov's earlier work, as it was to everyone else's. However, Kalatozov's later films show him moving as far away from editing as possible. When one thinks Russian director with long takes though, the first name that comes to mind in the great Andrei Tarkovsky. Excluding Alexander Sokurov's recent achievement Russian Ark, I Am Cuba has some of the longest moving shots ever put to film.

The moving shots in I Am Cuba would be highly impressive on length alone, but what makes them special is they look to be comprised of three separate ways of shooting, handheld, crane, and what's now known as the Steadicam. Early on there's a sequence that starts on a hotel roof with a band, moves to a series of bikini models on what they are using for a runway then reveals a man using the beauties to secure votes. This in itself would be a nice enough shot, especially since it was before the days when the girls had been "improved" into repulsive plastic creations, but it somehow continues down a few stories, turning 90 degrees to people sitting around the pool, finding a waitress serving a drink then following one of the people at that table into the pool. This unbroken take, which ends underwater with a look at people swimming, lasts 3:20. There was obviously some serious rudimentary rigging and craning going on, and even passing of the camera, but the whole scene has the look of a handheld POV shot, which is one of the reasons better technology hasn't made for a better version. When the moves are too polished and clean, you lose the intimacy, the feeling that things are being revealed to YOU.

As infeasible as the aforementioned sequence is, one could make a good argument that it's not even the best in I Am Cuba. There's a funeral procession for communist protestors that starts on the street, ascends 3 stories into a Cigar shop where a few of the workers show their support by draping a flag over the balcony. I can't even begin to imagine how this shot continues, but the best is yet to come. The camera doesn't stop with the balcony; it goes just over the flag and hovers halfway down a street flooded with people. Similarly large buildings are on both sides of the street, and from the plane of the balcony we see people on both sides showering those in the street with flowers and other ceremonious items.

Most of the film is incredibly fluid, which is still hard to believe given Kalatozov's constant array of extreme high and low angles. Another of the unbroken shots shows the enormity of the sugar cane field a poor old farmer can't make any money off. It descends into the cane, tilting up to the heavens (these whole segments seems to be looking for divine intervention, which doesn't follow the wishes of the communists) then finding the man "breaking through" the cane and dollying back with him just in front. Soon though, it turns 180 degrees and replaces the farmer, itself fighting through the cane. Finally, the sequence ends by ascending to the top of the field, which reveals the worker having already exited to get his machete.

The real accomplishment of all the technique in this film is every new angle seems to reveal something new about Cuba. It might not be true, but it's certainly very exciting. The film is kind of like an acrobat, you think it would be neat to share their perspective, but you'd rather not land on your head.

IMDb only lists Boogie Nights (the only good Paul Thomas Anderson film) in the references for the pool scene, but I suspect there have been many more. One fairly obvious one is Martin Scorsese referencing the early night club scene for the famous special entrance scene in Goodfellas. Generally, his long shots of constant motion show the influence of Kalatozov; Scorsese's camera movement is more conservative and conventional, but his scripts are a lot better and he often gets something out of the characters that makes you remember the whole sequence, while Kalatozov started in the silent days and never became that good of a dialogue storyteller. Though Anderson applied the one sequence, he's more a Scorsese wannabe who can kind of emulate the camera movement, but can't apply it logically or in any way where it adds to the film, and thus winds up with people talking while a lot of pointless motion is distracting from their words and actions. In any case, I Am Cuba is one of the classics like Luis Bunuel's Belle de Jour and Rene Clement's Purple Noon that influenced Scorsese enough that he chose to resurrect it. In this case, it was with the help of one of the world's most overrated directors Francis Ford Coppola, whose films would have been more interesting if they sometimes rose above the level of illustrated text. Bram Stoker's Dracula was at least an attempt to do something visually, and it was still a lesser vampire film.

I Am Cuba is most extraordinary visual film I've ever seen, but I don't know if that makes it a successful film. It was a Cuban-Soviet co-production made during the height of the cold war after the revolution it depicts as being in progress had been won. It is clearly a propaganda film, but it's hard to say quite whom it is for or what it's supposed to accomplish. It looks like a film that was made to get people to join Castro in the revolution, but I guess the point is to convince people how necessary the revolution was. Though it celebrates Cuba and demonstrates a love of Cuban culture, seeing everything looking and presented so beautifully Cuban party denounced it as counter revolutionary and dubbed it I Am Not Cuba. It didn't go over well in Russia either, who probably realized their promised industrialization would rob the land of all it's beauty and leave it another ugly polluted sewer. In any case, both countries wound up stashing it away.

I can't tell whether Kalatozov believes in the material or not. Like all his great Soviet contemporaries, his homeland meant he "had to" make some propaganda films. I think he did believe in the material in Salt for Svanetia where he was pleading for someone to help those people, and I know when the cold war thawed he made The Cranes Are Flying, which wasn't exactly thrilled with the communists. But I don't want to excuse him for some of this material, which is certainly dubious, just because I love his formalism. A beautiful liar is still a liar.

There is actually some truth to the film, but the points are made in such a silly and obvious fashion that whatever reality there might have been is lost. Certainly it's not hard to believe that the Americans are only interested in the parts of Cuba that amuse them or increase their bank account, that's pretty much true of any more powerful country that has troops around constantly, but when every American soldier is an obnoxious drunken potential rapist how can the sheep even take the anti-American stuff with a grain of salt? The anti-Batista stuff is equally hilarious. There's actually a juvenile scene after the cane farmer torches his fields because they were suddenly seized by a United company where the voice over asks who is responsible for these tears then there's a cut to a newsreel of General Fulgencio Batista being shown at the drive in. A riot ensues with angry citizens burning the screen down with Molotov cocktails.

The visuals are very effective; it's just that they don't have the effect the people who funded the film wanted. They are essentially too vibrant, artistic, and poetic to serve the party's propaganda purpose, and are probably the best example of why neorealism would have failed if the conditions and budgets were proper. Everything in I Am Cuba is shot so creatively that it's hard not to enjoy it all, whether it be the excess of the evil "Americans" (who obviously aren't American and even speak phonetic English!) the film takes several shots at or the toil of the poor workers. The story is communist, but the techniques tell it in a way that is way too glamorous. It looks so impressive it's easy to distance yourself from their intended effect, which is why Americans today enjoy it more than the people it was intended for at the time, even though they are the people being attacked. In that way, it works precisely because it fails. The supposed purpose of the film would be docudrama (they wouldn't say it was propaganda), but the film is more a dreamlike vision of a divided country.

The high-contrast black and white photography is splendid. Black and white is easier to manipulate into something dreamlike and exotic to begin with, but one thing that transforms it is an interesting dissolve technique. The poor sugar cane farmer is dreaming of being with his (dead?) wife in the fields, but then is just in the fields doing his every day chopping. The segment is comprised of several lengthy dissolves that put this footage behind waves crashing the shore in a way that makes the waves seem an almost transparent superimposition. One of the film's inventions has this old man thrashing bright white sugar cane against a black sky. The extreme contrast was created by using infrared film.

Another thing that adds to the dreamlike quality of the film is the way the poetry is delivered. The narration was written by top Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, and are delivered in both Russian and Spanish, creating a surreal rhythm. If I was trying to understand the Spanish track or the Russian track it might drive me crazy, but since I'm just reading the subtitles I think it creates a lyrical effect that adds that much more to the images it's supporting.

The film is split into four segments with one kind of "leading to" another. In general, the first two segments work and the second don't. Well, even work might not be the right word, but they look consistently stunning rather than just having moments of brilliance. What looks great is the country itself, and Kalatozov gets lost in the beauty and excess at every turn. The parts that don't work is the propaganda story, as the characters are so broadly stroked they are little more than laughable stereotypes and though Kalatozov kept trying you can't make political discussions and ideology that interesting to look at. Three things I'd really would have liked to see are what this film would have been like if Kalatozov was allowed to do whatever he wanted with it, and what Orson Welles' Brazil film It's All True or Maya Deren's Haiitian voodoo film (some of her 20,000 feet of film were posthumously turned into the doc Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti) would have been like if they finished them.

Maybe I just want to somehow justify something that is dubious because enough time has passed that it's obviously not true, but maybe the filmmakers were as fooled as anyone? After all, though their complaints are distorted, the things the revolution is supposedly for - land ownership, education for everyone, adequate housing, and elimination of unemployment - would have been a huge improvement if any of it actually happened. Of course, every revolution sounded good, especially to the hopelessly idealistic types we see here, but few actually led to anything better. The shady brilliance of I Am Cuba is about the only good thing that actually came from Castro's reign.




* Copyright 2003 - Raging Bull Movie Reviews *