Marching Forward Into the Past
I am Cuba—the sap of my palm trees is full of blood.
Lost to the non-Communist world for some three decades, I Am Cuba (Soy Cuba) has arrived at last on DVD. It has been well worth the wait: the high-flying poem of a plot, the daredevil cinematography that nearly dances, the pulse-quickening humanism: all mark it as a rare emblem of a more idealistic past.
Originally produced in 1964 by famed Russian director Mikhail Kalatozov (The Cranes Are Flying), and intended as an epic representation of the 1959 overthrow of Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista, for reasons reeking of Soviet censorship, the film was never screened, except for a few times in the USSR and Cuba. In the early 1990s, a print was shown at Telluride, after which it attracted the fervid attention of Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, who both helped Milestone open it theatrically in 1995. A bare-bones DVD release in 2000 preceded this “Ultimate Edition”, welcome for its splendid presentation and extras, even if it didn’t come packaged in a faux cigar box with two feature-length documentaries, one making-of, and another on Kalatozov himself.
Structured in four parts linked by sonorous narration, I Am Cuba is an impressionistic take on the oppression and rage that led up to the 1959 overthrow. Part One shows the effects of colonialism on the people of Cuba. A beautiful point-of-view shot taken from a canoe gliding through a poor village jumps jarringly to the top of a Havana skyscraper, where a party is in full swing. As horns blare and hotsy-totsy babes cavort in bikinis, the camera darts about before trawling down the side of the building, revealing a mezzanine full of more partiers, then diving (in the film’s most celebrated shot) into the pool itself. Like a spiraling back-flip off the high-dive platform, it gets our attention. After this sunburnt dazzle of excess, we’re plunged into a dark nightclub where a singer croons “Crazy Love”,
while Cuban girls are pawed incessantly by lecherous Americans, one proclaiming, “Nothing’s indecent in Cuba if you’ve got enough dough!”
While lines like that make one glad the filmmakers decided to skimp on the screenplay, this one exposes the scene’s essential sadness, as we watch one of the men take home a sad-eyed but regal Cuban girl who’s desperate for the money. As the film lingers on her defeated eyes, the narration lectures any would-be tourists that this is the price paid for casinos and fancy restaurants. In the eyes of the filmmakers, Cuba is a woman, beaten but resilient, whose honor must be defended.
Nobody ever said propaganda needed to be progressive. Though Soviet propaganda, particularly during the Second World War, valorized (and even exaggerated) the role of the nation’s women as brave soldiers, when the Soviet state film company Mosfilm set up shop in Cuba, it apparently accommodated local customs. In the third segment, a student’s simmering rage against the government—already expressed when he and his friends hurl Molotov cocktails at a drive-in movie screen showing footage of Batista—is further stoked when he defends the honor of a woman on the street harassed by drunken American sailors. From that moment on, an interlocking series of events leads him and other revolutionaries into direct confrontation with the authorities. In a nod to Battleship Potemkin, Kalatazov stages a sort of reverse Odessa Steps scene, in which unstoppable waves of brave students march down a stairway toward Batista’s police. Cuba’s honor will be avenged.
It is easy when stepping back from I Am Cuba to see scenes like these as manipulation of the most blatantly self-serving political kind, which indeed they are. How else is one to understand a lavishly funded Soviet film project that saw Che Guevara on set many days and Fidel Castro himself viewing the rushes. The film is designed as a living testament to the glory of the revolution.
But such thoughts are the furthest thing from most people’s minds as they behold the film’s ravishing images. In the midst of the revolutionary students sequence, Kalatazov stages a funeral scene that, though less famous than the pool-plunging take, arguably surpasses it in dynamic beauty. This time, the camera starts in a crowded, narrow street as a procession bears the body of a revolutionary martyr. In one take, the camera climbs up the side of a multi-story building, then crosses the street into and through a rooftop cigar factory, where the workers unfurl a Cuban flag out the window just as the camera leaves the building and soars out over the street and the procession below, keeping pace with it for at least two blocks before fading to black. One could watch it a dozen times before tiring of its gorgeousness—or figuring out how Kalatazov and cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky pulled such a thing off.
It is hard to imagine what Mosfilm could have been thinking when the company decided to bury this film in its vaults. This even after following this odd, fractured film through all its primal beauty and faux naïve dialogue (“These hands aren’t for killing, they’re for sowing”) through to the final images of the soon-to-be-victorious rebels singing under fluttering flags, marching toward Havana.
Perhaps, as Scorsese points out in his caffeinated video introduction to the film, the powers in Moscow were simply “afraid”. There’s something to that idea, because, for all its propaganda, I Am Cuba is more than just an advertisement for the workers’ revolution. It’s ideology presented with a vibrantly avant-garde vision that is constantly threatening to overstep its bounds. One can almost imagine the Mosfilm apparatchiks saying, “Okay, that’s great, but could it be less… revolutionary?” They could have been worried about the images’ raw, swelling power, the emotional release embodied by the victorious rebels marching off to an unseen conclusion.
I Am Cuba would have been named a classic no matter its release history. But being suppressed by those who wanted it made in the first place is a vindication of sorts. Mere propaganda only reinforces the status quo. True art is revolutionary.