2017 Film Essays

Vague Visages Is FilmStruck: Jeremy Carr on Mikhail Kalatozov’s ‘I Am Cuba’

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What would 1964 audiences have known about Cuba? What do audiences in 2017 really know? From the Cold War tensions of the 1960s to President Obama’s recent efforts to begin warming Cuban–United States relations, this island nation was, more often than not, shrouded in a politically-motivated cloud of secrecy and frequently malicious innuendos. Facts were distorted on both sides of the dispute and, rightly or wrongly, such perceptions made little to emerge from the country free from ideological baggage. That said, Mikhail Kalatozov’s brilliant opus of stylistic virtuosity, I Am Cuba (Soy Cuba), is likewise laden with the aims of rhetorical representation. So, while it impressively presents an underseen vision of Cuban life, much of the movie was explicitly designed to get some sort of point across. Yet, this is still an extraordinary film, from an often-neglected filmmaker. And while what is seen here had seldom been depicted elsewhere, perhaps most importantly, it had never — and still hasn’t — been depicted with such dynamism.

Though undeniably striking in terms of its cinematography, particularly its treatment of the Cuban culture and the landscape, I Am Cuba is more than a picturesque travelogue. It is a pulsating ethnographic profile, an excavation of sorts, uncovering and unleashing its discoveries with a sweeping scope (a sweeping, craning, tracking, hand-held scope). Photographed by Sergey Urusevskiy, who had already worked with Kalatozov on his immediately preceding masterworks The Cranes are Flying (1957) and Letter Never Sent (1960), there is a recurring balance between the synthetic and the natural, the surface and the harsh reality. They repeatedly illustrate the diverging paths of artifice and authenticity, where the two intertwine and where they run into conflict.

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Credited as “Cuba’s Voice,” Raquel Revuelta recites a stirring, melodic voiceover that lyrically embodies the country and its impressions, concerns and deliberations. She first cites Christopher Columbus, who, upon arriving at the island, declared in his diary, “This is the most beautiful land ever seen by human eyes.” But not long after, as “Cuba” tells it, the appeal of newly discovered sugar led to a pillaging of the region. It seems Cuba is destined to be admired and devastated in an endless storm of controversy and contradiction. Kalatozov continually depicts this constant combat of forward progression (modernity, globalism, social equity) and restrictive dogma (shady politics, crony capitalism).

From here, the opening moments of I Am Cuba appear to take unsolidified shape as a meandering series of visually dazzling snippets, unconnected by anything other than their fundamental location and the energy with which Kalatozov presents them. There are some sleazy English speaking gentlemen at a Havana nightclub (a site that literally and symbolically houses the good/bad dichotomy of modern, urban life), and Kalatozov briefly introduces a fruit and propaganda peddler and his girlfriend, Maria (Luz María Collazo). Eventually, these two vignettes overlap. Maria is known in the trendy hotspot as Betty, and after an intense, nightmarish bombardment of accosting faces and hands, frenetic movements and disorienting noise, she takes one of the sophistos (Jean Bouisse) back to her ramshackle hut of a home. Ready for a romping good time (which they still have), the man is in stunned silence as he looks at the state of her living conditions, far from the glitz and glamour of his Havana habitat. Upon leaving the next morning, he is blasted by the appearance of her labyrinthine shantytown, its layers upon layers of distressed dwellings and the clamoring crowd of curious children. Part of Cuba, as is accentuated in this opening chapter, is marked by the haves and have nots. These socioeconomic disparities gave birth to the 20th century turmoil for which the country is perhaps best known, and they similarly advance the remainder of the film. “Isn’t this a happy picture?” Cuba’s Voice calls out to the American as he stumbles away in class-conscious bewilderment. Cuba is more than bars, hotels and casinos, she says, again playing on Cuba’s often-misrepresented presentation. “Don’t run away,” she urges, “don’t look away.” This is a primer for the viewer as well. “I Am Cuba,” she again repeats.

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From this segment of urban bustle transitioning to the poverty that resides just on the outskirts, Kalatozov proceeds into a predominantly rural setting where a farmer, Pedro (José Gallardo), cares for his fields, pleading with his crops to grow in a touching, impassioned prayer. Showing the clear influence of his Soviet cinematic counterparts (specifically Alexander Dovzhenko), Kalatozov’s supportive low angles and sunset silhouettes bestow great elegiac and pictorial reverence upon this agrarian existence. Pedro looks proudly over his harvest, and the film underscores the glory in the toil, the pride in the exertion and the satisfaction in the well-earned sweat. But into this serene sphere of rewarding labor enters the prototypical landowner, who informs Pedro that he has sold the property to an American produce company and with it, Pedro’s home. While the farmer’s children are away, Pedro rages. Shot from a distance, high above, he now looks lost, dejected and sapped of power. He angrily hacks away at the produce, with ferocious movements emulated by the gashing camera, finally burning the land in a flaming fury that creates a powerfully haunting, smoke-filled specter of anguish. It is a conflict of natural, agricultural purity getting co-opted by the realities of corporate greed. Of course, the problem with this is that Pedro’s livelihood, for which he works so hard, is itself dependent on the mechanisms of consumerist culture; after all, he would not be much of a farmer if there was not someone to purchase what he provided. It’s just that now, things go to extremes. And they go beyond his backyard.

Documentary footage of the dictatorial Cuban president Fulgencio Batista appears next in I Am Cuba. The camera pulls back, and it’s revealed to be a newsreel showing at a drive-in (politics and pop culture meet). Suddenly, from the crowd of cars, Molotov cocktails set the screen ablaze. It is the perfect image of a latent revolution set to burst, laying in the shadows preparing to strike. One of these young rebels, a university student named Enrique (Raúl García), takes to the nearby streets as things cool down. There he encounters a young woman getting harassed by some rowdy, rude and drunken sailors (befitting the film’s ideology, they are, again, American). Enrique comes to her defense, and once more, Kalatozov and company show the duality of their chosen protagonists, the “good” (Enrique’s chivalrous shielding) and the “bad” (he is only there because he committed a crime). Enrique is one of many pro-Castro youths making plans for uprising, and throughout I Am Cuba, as one would expect, Fidel Castro is an ever-present figurehead — at one point, a group of individuals proclaim “I am Fidel” in Spartacus-like unison, even if he is not literally seen. (A proposed segment looking at his controversial attack on the Moncada Barracks in 1953 was cut from the film.) More than that, though, it is the revolutionary spirit that remains, and no segment of I Am Cuba highlights such fervor like this third installation. It is a powerful call to arms, one that emphasizes the exaltation in the joint enterprise, with the young revolutionaries singing songs of solidarity as they assert the revolt, but it also evokes the tragic and anxious human toll of the associated violence: in a frame-within-a-frame shot through cinder blocks, Enrique struggles to assassinate a target when said target is seen having breakfast with his two small children. The segment then descends into chaos, as police hose down the defiant opposition, finally shooting Enrique as he is set to strike with a rock.

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This part of I Am Cuba concludes with what is likely the film’s most astonishing sequence. During a funeral procession through the streets, the camera starts at ground level and cascades up alongside the nearby buildings, entering through a window, moving through the room, exiting out another window, along the path of an unfurled flag and finally traveling above a sea of people gathered in mourning. All politics aside, it is a majestic spectacle to behold, an ingenious feat of engineering and grand cinematic flourish (in the end, this effectively describes the film itself).

Kalatozov concludes I Am Cuba far from the city, resting for a time in the bucolic countryside radiating with scenic beauty. Here, Alberto (Sergio Corrieri) is joined by his wife and their children, living a life of simplicity and tranquility. Out of nowhere, a young militant on the run seeks refuge in their home. Alberto chides the revolution; he is content to live out of time, isolated. But then the bombing starts, planes soar above, and whether he wants it or not, the revolution, and the government’s retaliation, come to him. The suggestion seems to be that there is no escaping the transformation of a country in such upheaval. The reluctant peasant is spurred into action when one of his children is killed in the raid. In many ways, this may be the most heart-rending section of I Am Cuba, for while he may now have his just cause, Alberto’s loss of innocence is truly tragic. What was once fertile and peaceful (his land, his way of life) is now a war zone. Still, it comes down to independence, equality and social justice, so Alberto shifts from farming to combat, joining the rebels in the Sierra Maestra Mountains. “You are not shooting to kill,” says Cuba. “You are firing at the past.” The group marches on, heads and rifles held high. Triumphant flags wave.

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The Georgia-born Kalatozov, who would ultimately amass 20 films to his directorial credit, began as a film editor and cameraman, then made his first documentary in 1927. He started working at Mosfilm Studios in Moscow in 1943, and his success and national respectability led to a position representing Soviet cinema in the West, which included a trip to America during World War II to act as an ambassador, building relationships and securing films for distribution in the USSR. While much of his work up to the end of the 1950s followed in the requisite vein of state-commissioned propaganda, the new decade ushered in a post-war period of thawing creative freedom. Kalatozov was front and center. His career entered a new phase, with a renewed vigor, largely as a result of his recent collaboration with Urusevsky on The First Echelon (1956). Together, the two took bold strides with a formal liberty that would gain international attention when The Cranes Are Flying won the Palme d’Or at the 1958 Cannes Film Festival.

Like Vladimir Lenin, who famously declared, “Of all the arts, for us the cinema is the most important,” Castro recognized the importance of the motion picture, for its propagandistic purposes and mass appeal. Its edifying potential could illustrate a philosophy to audiences who would not, or could not, read about it otherwise. In 1959, Castro established The Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry, the government’s film office. Though Cuba’s film industry was paltry by comparison to that of the Soviet Union, it was an endeavor greeted with admiration by their Russian counterparts. Kalatozov, fascinated by the Cuban unrest and the revolutionary zeal, was further inspired by the likes of Sergei Eisenstein and his own ill-fated trip to Mexico. He was keen to celebrate and record Cuban culture and, most especially, the electrifying revolution. Brought aboard to write I Am Cuba was Soviet poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, who had worked for a time in Cuba as a correspondent for the Soviet newspaper Pravda and was even friendly with Castro, but he had never written a screenplay before, so Cuban writer Enrique Pineda Barnet was subsequently hired to assist. Kalatozov and his team embarked on a wide-ranging research mission, conducting interviews with those who had participated in the rebellions and demonstrations, pouring over documentaries, and traveling throughout the country. Apparently, even Che Guevara and Raúl Castro told their stories to the team. From this meticulous examination one thing became clear: I Am Cuba would focus on the masses, not the individuals, who change history.

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Actually making I Am Cuba was no easy task, though. The three-way standoff between the United States, Cuba, and the Soviet Union — the Cuban missile crisis, the infamous Bay of Pigs invasion, etc. — halted pre-production more than once. Everything finally got on track by early 1963, but even then, it would take more than a year before filming ended. The grueling location shoot and the elaborate camera work meant that many on the crew struggled under the physical effort of day-to-day operations. While it may have been cold comfort for some, fortunately, the end result justified the means. I Am Cuba is a visual tour-de-force, with Kalatozov incorporating extensive use of a surprisingly fluid hand-held camera (there was no Steadicam yet), an infrared negative to lend the picture a shimmering sheen, assorted filters and wide-angle lenses, a special rig and casing for underwater shooting and even a video system that allowed them to chart the course of their massive cranes on a television monitor. With everything combined, I Am Cuba overwhelms with its unparalleled filmic inventiveness and its occasionally jarring intensity.

I Am Cuba premiered July 26, 1964 in Cuba and the Soviet Union (July 26 chosen to commemorate the Moncada Barracks attack, generally seen as the start of the revolution). Yet after just one week, the film was pulled from distribution in both countries. In the Soviet Union, this primarily had to do with the film’s overt formalism, a style that was steadily going out of fashion as the government’s regime changed, while in Cuba, many simply did not care for the depiction of their native land. Those involved in the revolution argued that the film might actually work against Castro, who was implementing some controversial policies at the time (rebels are fine as long as they don’t get too rebellious) and locals argued against the film’s naive romanticism, stating that Kalatozov’s approach toward cultural flavor was too exotic for their tastes. The tempo of the picture — slow, rhythmical, whimsical — was out of step with the kineticism they witnessed in everyday life. Looking back years later, many who saw the film upon its initial release voiced their preference for what was being done in accordance with the Cinema Novo movement in Brazil, with films like Vidas Secas (1963) and Black God White Devil (1964) premiering around the same time. Eventually, starting in the early 1990s, I Am Cuba became a rediscovered masterpiece, thanks to the efforts of Cuban novelist Guillermo Cabrera Infante (who presented the film at the 1992 Telluride Film Festival), distributors like Milestone Films (which restored the picture) and filmmakers like Martin Scorsese (who did their best to lend their name and spread the word about this exceptional work).

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In any event, as a patently stylized manifesto, it is easy to get caught up in the exhilaration of I Am Cuba. If its overt artiness removed it from reality, if Urusevskiy and Kalatozov put spectacular photography above a classical script, that is chiefly why the film works as well as it does, and why it transcends the historical immediacy of the revolution itself. I Am Cuba is a special movie. It is a quintessential case of artistic aspirations running both with and against sociopolitical motivations. As it has no essential narrative — roaming from place to place, storyline to storyline, dropping in as seamlessly as it moves on — the film boasts a corresponding musical vibrancy. Mikhail Kalatozov captures the Cuban region with a stunning flamboyance, his intricate camera moves hard enough to conceive let alone put into technical practice. Yet its vignettes do not end happily, usually concluding with despair, violence and death. So, I Am Cuba also feels like a lament. And indeed, the critical reappraisal of the film was far too late for those of whom it mattered most. Kalatozov’s last film, The Red Tent, an Italian-Russian coproduction that received a Golden Globe nomination, came out in 1970. He died the following year. Urusevsky passed away two years after that.

Watch ‘I Am Cuba’ at FilmStruck.

Jeremy Carr (@jeremyrcarr) teaches film studies at Arizona State University and writes for the publications Vague Visages, Film International, Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI’s Notebook, Cinema Retro, Movie Mezzanine, Cut Print Film and Fandor’s Keyframe. 

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