I Am Cuba (Soy Cuba)

Chris Barsanti

The high-flying poem of a plot, the daredevil cinematography that nearly dances, the pulse-quickening humanism: all mark I Am Cuba as a rare emblem of a more idealistic past.

I Am Cuba (Soy Cuba)

Director: Mikhail Kalatozov
Cast: Luz María Collazo, José Gallardo, Sergio Corrieri, Mario Gonzalez Broche, Raúl García
Distributor: Milestone Film & Video
MPAA rating: N/A
Studio: ICAIC
First date: 1964
US DVD Release Date: 2007-11-20
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.


From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

Subverting the Romcom: Mercedes Grower on Creating 'Brakes'

Julian Barratt and Oliver Maltman (courtesy Bulldog Film Distribution)

Brakes plunges straight into the brutal and absurd endings of the relationships of nine couples before travelling back to discover the moments of those first sparks of love.

The improvised dark comedy Brakes (2017), a self-described "anti-romcom", is the debut feature of comedienne and writer, director and actress Mercedes Grower. Awarded production completion funding from the BFI Film Fund, Grower now finds herself looking to the future as she develops her second feature film, alongside working with Laura Michalchyshyn from Sundance TV and Wren Arthur from Olive productions on her sitcom, Sailor.

Keep reading... Show less

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

Under the lens of cultural and historical context, as well as understanding the reflective nature of popular culture, it's hard not to read this film as a cautionary tale about the limitations of isolationism.

I recently spoke to a class full of students about Plato's "Allegory of the Cave". Actually, I mentioned Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" by prefacing that I understood the likelihood that no one had read it. Fortunately, two students had, which brought mild temporary relief. In an effort to close the gap of understanding (perhaps more a canyon or uncanny valley) I made the popular quick comparison between Plato's often cited work and the Wachowski siblings' cinema spectacle, The Matrix. What I didn't anticipate in that moment was complete and utter dissociation observable in collective wide-eyed stares. Example by comparison lost. Not a single student in a class of undergraduates had partaken of The Matrix in all its Dystopic future shock and CGI kung fu technobabble philosophy. My muted response in that moment: Whoa!

Keep reading... Show less

'The Art of Confession' Ties Together Threads of Performance

Allen Ginsberg and Robert Lowell at St. Mark's Church in New York City, 23 February 1977

Scholar Christopher Grobe crafts a series of individually satisfying case studies, then shows the strong threads between confessional poetry, performance art, and reality television, with stops along the way.

Tracing a thread from Robert Lowell to reality TV seems like an ominous task, and it is one that Christopher Grobe tackles by laying out several intertwining threads. The history of an idea, like confession, is only linear when we want to create a sensible structure, the "one damn thing after the next" that is the standing critique of creating historical accounts. The organization Grobe employs helps sensemaking.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.