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I Am Cuba
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by Lybarger

"Failed Propaganda: Great Cinema"
5 stars

It’s impossible to simply watch ‘I Am Cuba.’ The experience of watching this 1964 movie is more like being hit by a two-and-a-half hour hurricane.

Georgian director Mikhail Kalatozov and Russian cinematographer Serguey Urusevsky (the team behind the Soviet masterpiece “The Cranes Are Flying”) create a seemingly endless series of jaw dropping images that convey a series of simple but powerful stories.

In the wake of the Cuban Revolution in 1959, Soviet and Cuban filmmakers teamed up to make a movie that celebrated the fall of dictator Fulgencio Batista and the rise of Fidel Castro. The government in Moscow provided Kalatozov, who was fresh from winning the Cannes Film Festival, with the Soviet equivalent of a blank check.

In the two years he spent making the movie, Kalatozov came up with a visual slight of hand that rivals anything today’s filmmakers can do with CGIs. Of course, it probably didn’t hurt to shoot in a location that was already photogenic. Havana’s sea wall, or Malecón needs no embellishments.

“I Am Cuba” is split into several vignettes. Some are stories; some are simply breathtaking aural journeys. The first images show the sea meeting the island and the struggling people in the rural areas.

Abruptly, the scene changes to the top of a high-rise hotel where a beauty contest is taking place. The camera pans past a rock and roll band, a smarmy announcer and the strutting contestants and descends several stories, eventually joining swimmers in the pool.

All of this is done in a single shot.

Urusevsky’s camera has an agility that would make the performers in Cirque de Soleil envious. More than that, the sequence shows how seductive the good life was for the few who could enjoy it. Good Communists may condemn this sort of decadence, but Kalatozov was smart enough to show why some people flocked to it.

The other segments include a hard-working sugar farmer (José Gallardo) who’s about to lose his home because of a deal with the American-based United Fruit Company. He finds a unique way of letting his landlord know what he thinks of that policy. In another area, a fruit vendor tries to woo a young woman named Maria (Luz María Collazo) who lives in his neighborhood, unaware that she has to make her living as a prostitute at a posh nightclub.

The other segments involve Enrique (Raúl García), a conflicted student revolutionary and a peasant, who reluctantly joins the rebels fighting in the hills after his own land is threatened.

In all of these vignettes, Urusevsky’s camera effortlessly follows its subjects, moving in ways that defy gravity and inspire awe. Fortunately, content doesn’t suffer.

It’s amazing to see how the camera can leap up building, through a cigar factory and rest on a flag during a funeral procession. Nonetheless, the scene invokes a sense of sadness, grandeur and hope because it’s for a character we’ve grown to care about and it indicates the struggle will outlive him.

Urusevsky used a special type of film that was developed for spying. Able to capture infrared light, the film featured rich, seductive shades or gray that make you wonder why filmmakers switched from black-and-white to color.

It doesn’t hurt that Kalatozov coaxed terrific performances from his non-professional cast. In a long shot Maria goes from terror to exhilaration as she’s dragged onto the dance floor for a party she’s not that eager to participate in.

Considering the power of the film today, it’s hard to believe it fared poorly when audiences finally saw it.

Some Cubans were growing disenchanted with the Revolution after Western embargoes hurt their economy, and others resented what they saw as stereotypical depictions of themselves in the film. Ironically, the Russians, who had encouraged Kalatozov to experiment found the final film to be too formalized and individualistic to make for good propaganda.

Thanks to Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese, the Communist film found a surprisingly warm reception in America. Both have applied their names to the new three-disc DVD box set that features dozens of illuminating extras.

The story of the film’s creation is just as intriguing as the film itself. One documentary on the making of the movie indicates that shooting proceeded even during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Scorsese offers an appropriately gushy endorsement in a segment that’s better viewed after you’ve seen the film. There’s also a fascinating interview with co-screenwriter Yevgeny Yevtushenko, who after all these years still has some issues with the final film.

The documentary on Kalatozov, made by the late director’s grandson, has dozens of amazing clips but doesn’t tell us much about him.

Still, that’s a minor quibble for a supplement to a movie that was intended to make Castro look good but makes viewers fall in love again with cinema instead.

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originally posted: 11/16/07 15:14:09
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User Comments

11/01/20 Mike Nelson Amazing camerawork, communists weren't wrong about how things were before the revolution. 4 stars
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  N/A (NR)
  DVD: 20-Nov-2007

  DVD: 18-Jan-2000


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