I Am Cuba (1964): Kalatozov’s Visually Dazzling Political Feature

Mikhail Kalatozov directed I Am Cuba, a visually dazzling, explicitly political movie, which was an international co-production of the Soviet Union and Cuba.

The movie was made by the renowned team of Soviet cinematographers Kalatozov and Sergei Urusevsky (winners of the 1958 Cannes Film Fest Palme d’Or for The Cranes are Flying), flaunting a striking visual style.

The film is shot in black and white to exaggerate the contrasts between the individual figures and and borader context.  Most images are shown in wide-angle, with the camera recording its subjects in intimate mode.

Unfortunately, I Am Cuba was not well receive in its own country or in the Soviet Union. In Havana, it was criticized for showing a rather stereotypical view of working class Cubans, whereas in Moscow, the feature was considered naïve and not sufficiently revolutionary.

The movie was never shown in the West, largely because it was a communist production, released in the midst of the Cold War era, during the US embargo against Cuba.

In the early 1990s, a younger generation of critics and directors, impressed with the long and dynamic tracking shots and idiosyncratic mise en scene, began a campaign to restore the film, which is now considered a landmark work of politics and art.

The narrative consists of four distinct stories about the suffering of the Cuban people and their varied reactions, from passive amazement in the first tale, to a guerrilla march in the last.

The first story,  centered on the character Maria, contrasts the destitute Cuban masses with the American-run gambling casinos. Maria lives in a shanty-town on the edge of Havana and hopes to get married to Rene, her fruit-seller boyfriend.  She leads a double-life as “Betty,” a prostitute at one of the Havana casinos catering to rich Americans. One night, her client asks to see her place, and she takes him to her small hovel. The next morning, he leaves some money but takes her most prized possession, her crucifix necklace.  Rene walks in and sees his ashamed fiancée, just as the American callously says, “Bye Betty!”

The second story is about a farmer named Pedro, who just raised his biggest crop of sugar yet. However, his landlord informs him that he has sold the land to United Fruit, and Pedro and his family must leave immediately. Pedro asks what about the crops? The landowner says, “you raised them on my land. I’ll let you keep the sweat you put into growing them, but that is all.”  Pedro lies to his children, giving them money to have a fun day in town. After they leave, he sets all of his crops and house on fire, and then dies from the smoke inhalation.

The third tale describes the suppression of rebellious students, led Enrique at Havana University.  Frustrated with the actions of the group, he plans to assassinate the chief of police. But when he sees the chief with his young children, Enrique cannot bring himself to shoot. Meanwhile, when his fellow revolutionaries print flyers, they arrested by the infiltrated police. One revolutionary throws flyers out to the crowd only to be shot by the police. Later on, when Enrique is leading a protest at the university, which escalates, he is shot, and with his death he becomes a martyr to the cause.

The final part shows Mariano, a typical farmer who rejects the plea of a revolutionary soldier to join the war. The soldier appeals to Mariano’s desire for a better life for his children, but Mariano wants to live in peace and asks the soldier leave. Soon after, government planes bomb the area, and Mariano’s home is destroyed and his son killed. He then proudly joins the rebels in the Sierra Maestra Mountains, leading to a triumphant revolutionary march.

A female narrator, credited as “The Voice of Cuba,”  periodically states:  “I am Cuba, the Cuba of the casinos, but also of the people.”

Restoration and Rerelease

In 1992, the film was screened at the Telluride Film Fest, and a year later at the San Francisco Film Fest. Milestone Films, a New York distribution company specializing in the release of once-lost or neglected films, acquired the distribution rights from Russia’s Mosfilm.  Milestone’s release was co-presented by directors Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, huge fans of the film.  I Am Cuba opened at the estimable New York Film Forum in 1995, where I first saw the feature.

Note:

I am grateful to TCM for showing the restored version of this seminal work on November 13, 2019.