Mikhail Kalatozov

I am Cuba

I am Cuba, or Soy Cuba, directed by Mikhail Kalatozov, a Soviet and Cuban co-production was long forgotten before being revived by the likes of Scorcese and Coppola, hailing it a masterpiece. The reason of it’s getting forgotten was the poor response that it received by the Cuban and the Soviet people. Though made to forward the political and revolutionary ideology of the Cuban revolution it has become more famous for the innovative and mesmerizing cinematic techniques. It hails some of the very famous scenes in the history of cinema. Kalatozov got to team up with his favorite and much acclaimed cinematographer Urusevsky. Both had earlier given greats movies like The Letter That Wasn’t Sent and The Cranes are Flying to cinema together. Kalatozov was given much freedom while shooting the movie, though the script after being written by two poets Yevgeny Yevtushenko and Enrique Barnet, was to come under the scanner of the Cuban and Russian think thank.

The movie is divided into four parts showing different aspects of Cuban life and revolution. The movie moves with a female voice over proclaiming herself to be Cuba and each episode ends with her talking about Cuba. The movie begins with a several minutes long aerial shot over landscapes of Cuba, then moving on to Cuban life starting along the sea, moving through the living of poor people and then ending with a, towards the sky, palm trees view, bottle necked shot.

In the first part Cuba is shown with it’s nightclubs, hotels, casinos run and being enjoyed by the American businessmen with Cuban girls, singers, and prostitutes providing the entertainment. There are three businessmen who after picking up their girls are having a gala time dancing and joking with them. This part contains the film’s most famous shot where a camera after starting atop a hotel, where bikini-clad women are performing to the tunes, descends down the building from a side to an area surrounding swimming pool and after moving few bits here and there finally “without a cut” goes underwater, following the movements of the swimmers. In another of the spectacular scene, a Cuban girl’s moves and movements are followed by the camera when she’s dancing with her clients. Her apprehension, occasional pain, resistance and cries are matched by the camera with its erratic movements across the bamboo sticks hanging from the ceiling across the dancing place. The movie then proceeds with a eccentric client taking her to her house to spend the night with. Next morning he buys her Locket, though against her mild reluctance, later to be followed by dozens of destitute children asking for money, across the paths of Cuba, where she lived. Then the female voice over returns saying, “Don’t avert your eyes. Look! I am Cuba. For you, I am the casino, the bar, hotels and brothels. But the hands of these children and old people are also me.”

In the second part a peasant is shown praying for a rich harvest, then later with his children, goes happily towards the sugarcane fields to cut the harvest. As the old man and his son cut the sugar cane plants first hitting at the bottom and then at the top, the synchronizing sound with the hits and the movements of the camera against a high contrast sky gprovide a mesmerizing sequence. But its halted by few horse driven men along with the landlord telling that the land has been sold to the US United Fruit Company. The Old man in despair starts hitting the sugar canes randomly, the camera then again forms a rhythm, moving away just as the the old man’s swinging axe goes down. And then later in again an amazing high contrast view, he sets his field and house to fire, after sending his children to dance giving his last dime to them. And then the voice over again returns.

In the next part student few revolutionaries are shown, first arguing eliminating a ruthless killer over fighting against the system, then one takes upon to kill that man but finally fails, in a cliche of a scene, after he sees the man with his kids. Later that same man kills his friend with whom he was arguing, which makes the revolutionary address a large gathering and then in another melodramatic scene getting killed as he walks towards the killer with a brick in his hand. Then comes the famous funeral procession scene.
The move despite some good cinematography falls in that section as after showing the painful Cuban situation in first two parts, it fails to rise up to the level of what a revolution demands. Probably the biggest reason why the movie was poorly received by the Cubans.

The final part shows a farmer, though having some initial reluctance, joining the struggle in the Mountains. And in the end the winning march of the revolutionaries is shown.

It won’t be wrong to call it as a flawed masterpiece. Though a great cinematic feat, it fails to live up to it’s raison d’etre. Bottle neck views, high black and white contrast, restless hand held, long shots camera all together do create a mesmerizing surreal experience, providing the movie a certain romantic feel. Communist kitsch or not the movie does paints a powerful picture, though the priority scales do tip on the other side.
A documentary I Am Cuba: The Siberian Mammoth also came out in 2005, taking into focus what went into achieving this great cinematic feat.

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The Cranes are flying

The Cranes are flying is a story about shattered love, told against the backdrop of World War II. The story centers around Veronica, a chubby, vivacious and lively girl, who is living happily, rejoicing as she’s about to get married to Boris, her lover. She is far away from worry and trouble when everything is going wrong in the world around.
But just a day before her b’day comes the news that Boris has been called for the war after he volunteered for the front.

Yeah, we all know what would have happened later. She will wait, sob and keep on hoping for his love to return. Even when someone will carry the news that Boris had died but she won’t believe and will still wait for the war to get over and Boris to return. In between the world without understanding her love and despair will force itself on her. She will get along with Life but her heart will still keep on getting the burnt of the battle fields.
It could have been any other war movie but what make it stand apart are some brilliant performances and some amazing cinematography rendering good deal of expressive realism. There are few scenes that just leave you spellbound with their elegance and heightened melodrama.

There’s a scene where Boris is hit in the battle field. A shriek comes out of his mouth as he looks above, towards the crane less sky, across the naked trees. Then we see him running up a circular staircase. The sky and the trees also start rotating in the same direction i.e. along his spiral ascends. Both frames move as if each is trying to outrun each other. The crane less sky and the naked trees symbolizing the war and Boris’s run a common man’s struggle for peace and love. As Boris reaches the top where he sees his love as the sky and the trees vanish. He sees his love Veronica getting married to him. She’s in her white wedding gown, that very gown which she pointed in the beginning of the story showing her grandma’s marriage photograph. She’s smiling and laughing. Then they both kiss each other. Then suddenly we are transported back the battle field. Boris falls with his eyes still glued towards the sky, but there is no life in them. And then he utters his last words. The words come as if they were not his or somebody else spoke them as none of his expression or his eyes gave any hint of flinching.

There’s also a scene where Boris is going to the war. Veronica arrives at his house to bid him goodbye but to her bad luck he has already left. Then she rushes to the place where all the soldiers were supposed to assemble. There is Boris behind the gates, waiting for her and searching through the faces of the visitors. She wanders here and there in the crowd assembled but any glimpse of Boris eludes her. Then the soldiers start marching with people crowding the road on both the sides. Veronica pushes and across the crowd still clutching her goodbye gift that she has brought for Boris. Struggling to move ahead she catches a glimpse of Boris marching ahead. She shouts his name but to no success. She jumps and pushes. She shouts again and then in a desperate attempt she throws her gift towards the soldiers hoping to get Boris’s to notice her. But her attempt fails and her gift falls on the road, between the marching soldiers, spilling all its contents. And what could have been her last memento to Boris gets crushed under the marching feet of the war.

Not only are these but there many other great cinematic moments. Kalatozov and Urusevsky are regarded as one of cinema’s great director/cinematographer pairings with few more great movies like The Letter That Wasn’t Sent and I am Cuba to their credit.
Here’s a link that does much more justice to the movie and also provides some historical background.