DVD I Am Cuba
In the early 1960s, Soviet Russia thought it would lend a hand in financing a film about the Cuban revolution. Instead of a sober account of the island’s struggle for the communist cause, director Mikhail Kalatozov and photographer Sergei Urusevsky gave Cuban and Russian audiences a 141 minute lesson in innovative cinematic technique.
I Am Cuba presents four stories about the lives of the Cuban people in order to tell the story of Cuba itself, here personified and given a female voice, who talks directly to the audience. Each of the four parts illustrates a different aspect of Cuba’s political and economic troubles.
The first segment shows how the poor young women have become accustomed to soliciting the services of wealthy American men to scratch a living. The second segment sees a sugar cane farmer brought to financial ruin by his boss’ sale of the land to ‘United Fruit’. The third chapter portrays the anger of the students and their step from underground movement to open revolution. And lastly, the focus is on a rural mountain farmer who, initially opposed to violence, takes up arms in the struggle against Fulgencio Batista’s regime.
Each part exists to criticise the foreign powers harming Cuba, and though the stories are not strictly connected, they do aim to reflect the state of the country as a single organism. The downtrodden natives are not Cubans, they are Cuba…
The political ideology is put across pretty clearly in this film. The lack of subtlety is lamentable but amazingly it is all lifted clear from the mire of bad movie making by some of the most audacious and energetic technical trickery seen on the silver screen.
The first segment of the film is the most effective because it is here that the camera cuts startlingly from beautiful aerial shots of the countryside, capturing intense heat with a black-and-white infrared film that makes the trees white hot, to the jazzy rock’n’roll party on a Havana apartment complex rooftop. The viewer feels strangely detached from the goings on despite, through use of the camera, being in everybody’s faces – it is an invitation to judge these people having fun, when they should not be. The magic really begins with the scene in the nightclub. The interior is a fake jungle and the bamboo, bridging the floor and ceiling, makes it difficult to cut straight lines – a good excuse to swerve the camera in and out of unlikely places. Amidst this voodoo like atmosphere are three wealthy looking Americans out for some fun. They speak in English, but in the most subtly bizarre fashion, and coupled with the camera swimming about them, as if no one were controlling it, a very strange, hallucinatory quality takes hold. It is not that dissimilar a feeling created by the famous dream sequences from David Lynch’s Twin Peaks and Fire Walk With Me.
All four sections of this film show moments of technical and artistic brilliance.
All four sections of this film show moments of technical and artistic brilliance, but, after a while, it feels as if something should have been held back. It would be a lot easier to appreciate each chapter viewed separately because the eventual fatigue of witnessing so many dizzying spiralling shots, which does occur, would not be able to set in. In fact, an earlier film from Kalatozov and Urusevsky, The Cranes Are Flying, is often lauded for using the same cinematic techniques, but without having over indulged themselves creatively.
Another often cited problem with I Am Cuba is the storytelling. It is not terrible by any means, but perhaps an over simplified and overstated case, in the way it is the same message told four times of how awful Cuba’s trials have been. In the final chapter, the voice of Cuba tells us that the hands of Mariano, the mountain farmer, were made for planting but must now be used for killing because his son has died in a bombing. Instantly, he understands he must join the rebel cause. It may irk some that he does not weigh up the heavy issues of consequence and responsibility, or choose to fight after careful consideration of a Marxist-Leninist doctrine, but he is a simple man whose motivations are pure – revenge. This is not necessarily bad story – telling so much as a reflection of why most rural people probably do end up fighting.
Ultimately, this film is too long. 141 minutes is a long time to sustain excitement at visual creativity, especially if the audience is not mostly made up of cinephiles. After the disarmingly climatic third chapter, it is okay to groan when the fourth part begins. The third is very watchable piece of cinema, with moments of genius (and better if one can forget the dove shot down by a soldier, then held up as a confused symbol of pacifist resistance before the fighting starts), but it feels different from the first and second chapters. They have a mesmeric and alien quality, helped by overdubbing sounds into hypnotic rhythms that are hard to forget after experiencing them.
I Am Cuba’s failings are not enough to bring it down. Where many might see the actual stories as naive, even insultingly simple perhaps, it might do to remember that they cut straight to the heart of the issue. And perhaps the creative team have over indulged themselves in technical wizardry, but at least it is a fascinating sight to behold for much of its running time. As a character in this film, the camera buzzes with energy and appears to be having a whale of a time, which is certainly better than a dry, lifeless propaganda picture.
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