|Following the landmark release of the too long underground Killer of Sheep, Milestone Films has locked down the title for DVD distributor of 2007 with its mind boggling ultimate 3 disk edition of Mikhail Kalatozov's I Am Cuba (Soy Cuba), creatively packaged in a pseudo-Cuban cigar box. The unique joint Soviet-Cuban venture began less then a month before the world was led to the brink of nuclear holocaust during the Cuban missile crisis, and took two years to complete.
Although both the Soviet and Cuban governments desired a propaganda film to educate and inspire their people very much in the tradition of Eisenstein (Battleship Potemkin, Alexander Nevsky, October), Kalatozov gave them more than they bargained for with a work of art that was thirty years before its time—almost inevitable given the situation. In a politically repressive society, Soviet artists focus their creativity on the aspects that they have control over; thus, when narratives are subjected to heavy censorship, Kalatozov concentrated on perfecting the visual poetry of his creation.
Considering that he was collaborating with the same cinematographer he had worked with in The Cranes are Flying (Sergei Urusevsky) and working with Soviet poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko and Cuban poet Enrique Barnet, it's no wonder that the resulting film was too avant-garde for 1964 tastes. Both Soviet and Cuban governments hated it, critics panned it, and the film found no audience. Even the actors and crew thought they had spent two years creating a colossal flop.
Kalatozov had chosen the two poets to write the screenplay because he wanted to avoid all preconceptions—he wanted a visual poem without traditional heroes and plot development. Instead, he wanted Cuba and the idea of revolution to be the star. That's why the dialogue is so minimal, why the narrative is so disjointed, and why the characters are developed in classic Italian neo-realistic fashion.
The propaganda remains clear and unmistakable—obnoxious colonials frolic during Batista's government, U.S. military get ugly, peasants suffer poverty and injustice, students and workers begin to resist, and revolution is kindled in the jungle, and finally triumphs. But it's the pure cinema that overcomes the subject matter and creates the most mesmerizing black and white photography that you'll ever see in one film. The facts about the Cuban revolution are fuzzy and imprecise, but I Am Cuba consists of visual impressions that will forever remain embedded in your mind's eye—just as much as Picasso's La Guernica communicates the horrors of war.
The opening shots flying over Cuba alone would make the film worthwhile. One of the reasons the film took so long was that both Kalatozov and Urusevsky insisted on perfect lighting and the proper clouds in the sky to give the proper effects. If the sky was cloudless, no shooting for the day. But what makes the opening so unique, is that the filmmakers use the same infrared film that the East Germans had been using for spying, giving the waving palms and sugar cane an ethereal ghostlike quality. Infrared was long before Columbus' time, but the opening recalls the thoughts of his journal upon landing: "This is the most beautiful land ever seen by human eyes."
This is only a preliminary of the ravishing cinematic feast to come. A hand held camera frees the cinematographer to capture the rhythms of the island, taking us into a Cuban night club and literally putting us in the shoes of a native dancer in full frenzy; another empathetic hand held shot later swirls around a student protester in a smoky cloud. But unquestionably the highlights remain two landmark tracking shots. You'll understand why cineastes are abuzz when you see them: the continuous shot that travels from a hotel roof down into the swimming pool and another that takes place during a street funeral. In the latter, it's amazing enough to see the tracking shot go from the street alongside a building and follow the action on top of the roof, but just how the shot continues after the unfurling of the Cuban flag is absolutely mind-boggling.
It's late in the year now; the time that studios trot out their Oscar hopefuls, so there's plenty to see in the theaters. However, there's no anything scheduled for screening that ranks as dazzling as I Am Cuba. Film buffs have already been grateful to Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola for rescuing this forgotten film a decade ago, and now they can celebrate Milestone Films for preserving it in definitive style—a high definition transfer along with great extra features that provide excellent background on the project: video interviews with Scorsese and Yevtushenko, a "making of" documentary, and a documentary on director Mikhail Kalatozov.