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.