Looking for someone to blame for the on-going cinematic trend of long, flashy tracking shots designed to show off how clever the director is? The unlikely culprit might be Soviet filmmaker Mikhail Kalatozov. Largely forgotten today, Kalatozov was one of the most respected directors in the USSR in the early ’60s when he was selected to helm I Am Cuba, a film celebrating Castro’s communist revolution (the Soviets understood that because people tend to accept visual images as more truthful and harder to distort than the printed word, film was the perfect medium for propaganda).
Although I Am Cuba was about the Cuban working class’s struggle for independence, the movie was more than anything a showcase for some of the most astonishingly complex long takes ever devised. Even today, its virtuosic camerawork is breathtaking, particularly since it was achieved before the invention of the Steadicam or even smaller cameras.
But not everyone was so impressed with the film’s insistence on style over substance. When it was released in 1964, Cuban audiences thought the filmmakers didn’t understand their culture (they saw it as a Soviet film set in Cuba, rather than one that actually listened to the voices of the Cuban people), and the producers in the Soviet Union felt it wasn’t revolutionary enough. And so the film was abandoned and forgotten for almost 30 years, until it resurfaced in 1992 at a film festival as part of a retrospective on Kalatozov.
Festival patrons were mesmerized by the beauty of I Am Cuba, and newly converted fans Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola pushed for a full restoration of the print. Within just a few years the movie was hailed as a classic, with hip young directors like David O. Russell and P.T. Anderson paying homage to it in their own films (a long tracking shot that ends in a swimming pool in Boogie Nights is a direct reference to a similar shot in I Am Cuba). It’s an irony equal to Che Guevara selling t-shirts that a film made to be propaganda for the Cuban revolution was discarded by the communists and eventually embraced by western film buffs and critics who have ignored its political leanings.
The ideology of I Am Cuba is as black and white as its cinematography: its villains are fat cat landowners, foreign companies, and boorish Americans, and its heroes are saintly Cuban peasants fighting for their dream of a communist utopia. The film is divided into four vignettes, and each one shows the Cubans growing increasingly discontented and willing to take matters into their own hands.
In the first, a young woman sells herself as a prostitute to a group of visiting American businessmen (one of them even goes as far as to offer money for her crucifix, and refuses to take no for an answer); the second vignette centers on a poor sugar cane farmer who burns his crops rather than let them be sold to the United Fruit company; the third follows a student activist who debates whether or not to assassinate a plutocrat; and in the fourth and final story a poor farmer is inspired by a nameless rebel leader (an obvious stand-in for Fidel Castro) to take up arms against his oppressors.
While all four segments are made with dazzling style, not all of them are equally compelling. The plight of the sugar cane farmer is heartrending, particularly when he gives his children his last bit of money so they can go out and have a good time, but it’s really just a straightforward tale of cruelty without the sort of nuance that would help us understand the political or economic factors that are bankrupting the Cuban farmers. Likewise, the story of the poor farmer who becomes a rebel soldier (obviously a step up from destroying his land and his own livelihood) is too overtly didactic to amount to anything other than a communist fable of the meek embracing violence as a means of settling class warfare.
But the first and third of the vignettes are not simply noteworthy for their filmmaking style, but also for their ambiguity. The movie’s opening scene is set at a beauty pageant and upper-class party held atop a massive skyscraper, but Kalatozov is clearly reveling in the atmosphere rather than criticizing it for its excess. And when the student radicals learn that one of their own has been killed, they debate amongst themselves whether to immediately retaliate with violence or protest for political change. There is a clearer sense in these segments that we are watching real people grapple with a larger political crisis, rather than a lecture about the benefits of communism.
Today, of course, the Soviet Union is defunct. But even if its politics have been proven as hopelessly naïve, the dreamlike sweep of I Am Cuba still retains its power. The film has revealed itself as a tribute, not to Cuba or even to communism, but to the power of the cinema to enthrall us – even against our better judgment.
The extra features in this Ultimate Edition set include a half-hour interview with Scorsese, an alternate version of the opening credits, the original trailer, an interview with screenwriter Yevgeny Yevtushenko, and a pair of feature-length documentaries on the film itself and the life of Kalatozov, all collected together in a clever DVD case made to look like a Cuban cigar box. There’s certainly a wealth of material here, although sometimes you have to slog through it in order to find something insightful.
Scorsese is, as always, a charismatic and engaging speaker, but since he wasn’t actually a part of the creative process on the film, most of his comments are limited to expressing his enthusiasm for I Am Cuba and wondering what the cinema of today would be like if it had been an international hit when it was first released. He has interesting points to make, but you get the feeling that the interview could have been cut down to half its current length without losing too much.
The DVD set’s centerpiece – aside from the restored film itself – is “The Siberian Mammoth”, a 90-minute documentary on the making of I Am Cuba. But the first half of the documentary gets bogged down in minutiae, as the filmmakers spend a great amount of time interviewing old cast members and asking them minor questions about how the film was made. It doesn’t get truly interesting until almost 50 minutes in, when it broadens its focus and examines why the film received such a chilly reception in the Soviet Union.
The most touching moment comes at the end, when the filmmakers return to the former cast members and inform them that I Am Cuba has been resurrected as a film classic in the west. As they stare at a VHS copy of the movie like it’s an artifact from another world, the unspoken message is that these people are surprised and only mildly impressed that someone thought their efforts amounted to a worthwhile work of art.