“My sugar was carried away on ships, but my tears were left behind.” This year marks the fiftieth birthday of Mikhail Kalatozov’s classic film I am Cuba. Not in the half decade since has a film been so effective in its portrayal of history. It is a film where technical impossibilities suddenly became possible. It is a film that transforms a revolutionary struggle into cinematic art. It is a film that will leave you wondering, “How the hell did they do that?”
Made in the early 1960s when Cuban and Russian relations were at their rosiest and financed as a joint production between the two countries, the film however was met with scorn upon its release and as a result was shelved, only to surface again in the early 1990s. The consensus in Cuba in 1964 was that the film was overly stylized, whereas in Russia the concern was that it was overly political.
Kalatozov, previously best known for The Cranes are Flying and Letter Never Sent, released in 1957 and 1959 respectively, forces us to look at the harsh realities of the Cuban revolution, with Cuba herself providing the voice over, “Look at me,” the voice over pleads, pleading with us to look at her scars, her bruises, and her many broken bones. The script was co-written by Enrique Pineda Barnet and acclaimed Russian poet Yevgeni Yevtushenko, a script which combined beautifully with Kalatozov’s lyrical directing style.
When Kalatozov and his crew first landed on the island, they arrived with romanticism, eager to depict what they thought was a bloodless revolution; this is mirrored in the film’s structure. The Cuba we first meet is a swinging Cuba, a vibrant Cuba, The Buena Vista Social Club Cuba, a version of Cuba that wouldn’t look out of place in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, but then Kalatozov lifts the curtain to show us the real truth. We follow an American tourist who’s eager to see how the ‘real’ people of Cuba live. At this point, Kalatozov’s masterful use of juxtaposition kicks in as we suddenly find ourselves in a community where the ‘real’ Cubans live in flooded shanty town shacks. The effect of going from the Felliniesque elegance of the nightclubs and rooftop parties to Los Olvidados style poverty is simply devastating, with the harsh realities washing over us like a muddy stream. Kalatozov then takes us on through the tough sugar cane farms where a farmer and his family are left with nothing, onto the student uprising and bloody riots, eventually ending up in the mountains with Castro’s guerrilla fighters, with the main character of the entire journey being Cuba itself.
I am Cuba first resurfaced at the Telluride Film Festival in 1992. It was then restored and promoted in America by Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola before being released in New York in 1995. Scorsese commented that the film made him “Excited about filmmaking,” again, whilst Paul Thomas Anderson would go on to replicate a shot in Boogie Nights where the camera in one take tracks through a crowded party and ends up underwater in a swimming pool. The outlandishness of the technical achievements of I am Cuba, culminating with Sergey Uresevsky’s sumptuous one of a kind sense-tingling cinematography, will possibly give wannabe film directors erotic pleasure.
Kalatozov like almost no other director managed to convey emotions and a feeling for history through his camera moves. He employed long takes to rival Béla Tarr and expanded on the Wellesian low camera angles, framing his characters with infrared film stock with the sky peering over, ready to swallow them up, giving each shot a kind of evil beauty. I am Cuba quite possibly contains the most audacious and truly stunning camera move in all of cinema. Starting outside at street level, the camera floats dreamlike up the side of a building till it reaches its peak, then magically drifts, as if it was flying, across to another building on the other side of the street, entering a window of a cigar rolling factory, it then drifts across the room and out of the end balcony to glide mid air in between the buildings like a small aeroplane, all in one uncut take.
Originally made as a propaganda film, there is obviously a strong focus on the political, with Kalatozov occasionally removing sound altogether from certain scenes, stripping everything away to leave us alone with the emotive and striking images. The image the film paints of the United States is not a pleasant one. In one sequence a group of rowdy American sailors on shore leave chase a frightened Cuban woman through the streets. If not for the bravery of Havana University student Enrique, the focus of the third vignette, who steps in and stands up to the sailors, it wouldn’t take much imagination to guess what the sailors would’ve done to the woman. In truth, the film is nothing but suggestive in its depiction of the United States as an economic rapist and Cuba as its unfortunate victim. The end style however, is so vivid and expressive that it completely out-trumps any political and social propaganda, most likely because as a director, Kalatozov was given complete freedom, never wanting for time, money or resources.
Despite its sprawling story, the film manages to create a hypnotic intimacy, giving each viewer the sense that the story is being told exclusively for her benefit. The film, like nearly all films, is not void of flaws. There is some truly awful dialogue dubbing for instance, but saying that, the shear humanity of the film engulfs any flaws just like it does in a film like Little Fugitive, where, yes, the dubbing is cringe worthy but the film is so enthralling that all flaws just peril in significance. Scorsese also remarked that if this film had been distributed properly in 1964 then maybe pictures would be different today. But compared to today’s cinema, the 50-year-old I am Cuba feels very young.
James Knight is a film critic residing in Wales, UK.