Arts Listings

Moving Pictures: 'I Am Cuba' — A Long-Neglected Masterpiece of Political Filmmaking

By Justin DeFreitas
Friday December 07, 2007

When art dabbles in politics it runs the risk of its politics subsuming its art. No matter how great the artistic achievement, there is always the danger that critical and popular reception may be held hostage to considerations that go far beyond artistic merit.  

Such was the case with I Am Cuba, an extraordinary 1964 Cuban-Soviet production that deserves a place alongside Triumph of the Will (1935) and Battleship Potemkin (1925) as a landmark of political filmmaking. The movie’s vast ambitions, which it largely fulfills, ultimately fell victim to the very politics it espoused. After just a few screenings it languished in a vault for 30 years before finally receiving its due recognition in the 1990s. And now it finally gets a DVD release worthy of its grandeur in the form of a three-disc set from Milestone Films. 

The project began just after the Cuban Revolution, as Castro’s government was settling in after the overthrow of dictator Fulgencio Batista. The Soviet Union, eager to show support for the budding socialist nation, sent writers and artists and intellectuals to help foster Cuba’s burgeoning cultural movement.  

Included among these cultural ambassadors were film director Mikhail Kalatozov and his cinematographer Serguey Urusevsky, who had collaborated on several films already, and poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko. They set out to make a sort of cinematic epic poem about contemporary Cuba and about the revolution itself. Yevtushenko and Cuban writer Enrique Pineda Barnet were put to work on a script, but with strict instructions from Urusevsky to keep the words to a minimum—this would be a visual film, not a verbal one. 

The result is one of the most stunning and inventive visual feasts ever put on film. It relates four separate stories of the suffering and rising political consciousness of the Cuban people, the episodes united by a narrator, “the Voice of Cuba,” who reiterates the themes and provides the transitions between the tales.  

Kalatozov and Urusevsky took a bold visual approach that expanded on their previous work. The film consists of stirring, swirling camera movements that flow effortlessly from one indelible image to another. Long, unbroken shots lure us further into this highly stylized world, into the reality of its unreality. The camera moves relentlessly, following characters around corners, up staircases, through open fields and crowded nightclubs; it views them from extreme angles, high and low; it floats up the sides of buildings, through windows, over streets and even into swimming pools.  

When asked why his sentences were so long and at times convoluted, novelist William Faulkner replied that he was trying to fit everything into one sentence, to fit the entire sweep of history on the head of a pin. I Am Cuba’s sustained shots and graceful, engrossing camera movements serve a similar purpose, taking us on a journey through a political and social landscape where history itself is unfolding, where a revolution is igniting, where a certain political consciousness is enveloping the land and its people.  

Some of the shots seem to defy logic. Even an experienced filmmaker like Martin Scorsese was dumbfounded after his first viewing of the film, unable to figure out how several shots were achieved. An accompanying documentary reveals a few secrets, but not all. But although the film’s style is bold and intoxicating, it is never gratuitous, for its distinctive form is wedded perfectly to its content.  

One facet that goes unexplained on the DVD’s extra features is Kalatozov and Urusevsky’s use of the wide-angle lens throughout the film. Its distortions call to mind the expressive shots from Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, in which the wide-angle lens seems to represent the distorted visions of grandiosity of the film’s title character—reality seen through a fragmented snow globe. Perhaps Kalatozov and Urusevsky saw it as another method by which to establish the film’s heightened poetic tone. Or perhaps they simply liked the aesthetics of it, for it allowed them to take in as much of the landscape as possible. But in retrospect, four decades after the revolution, the imagery takes on an entirely different quality, that of the distorted lens through which participants and idealists saw the revolution at the time, before the utopian dream settled into disillusionment, before the hopes and dreams of a nation faded into day-to-day subsistence and struggle. Cuba, vast and glorious in black and white, bends at the edges of the frame, curling inward like facts bending to fit the beholder’s vision. 

There were great hopes for the project—as a symbol of the revolution, as a plea for international support, and as a sign of collaboration between the Soviet Union and the nascent socialist island state. But when the film opened, after two years in production, Cubans and Russians alike were disappointed. The Russians saw it as naive and tepid; the Cubans felt the filmmakers had misunderstood and stereotyped their people, infusing characters with a distinctly Russian brand of slow deliberation. As actor Sergio Corrieri put it, the film was “Cuban reality seen through a slavic prism.”  

The film showed for a week, then disappeared for three decades, never screening outside the nations that produced it. 

I Am Cuba finally got its first screenings in the West in the early 1990s. It was soon brought to the attention of New York’s Milestone Films, who secured the rights, and, with the help of Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, gave the film a theatrical release in 1995, whereupon the film was hailed as a masterpiece. Village Voice film critic J. Hoberman said the film’s rediscovery was “like finding a preserved Siberian mammoth in the sands of a tropical island.” 

Now Milestone has released the film in a lavish DVD set (packaged in a cigar box) that includes a beautiful new transfer of the film and extra features which delve into the production and its legacy, including a documentary about the film itself (called I Am Cuba: Siberian Mammoth), another about the distinguished career of director Mikhail Kalatozov, and interviews with Scorsese and poet Yevtushenko. 

This is one long-forgotten classic that is more than deserving of the praise heaped upon it—a truly revolutionary film that might have radically altered the cinematic landscape had it been distributed in its time. As Scorsese says in his introduction to the film, if I Am Cuba had been widely seen when it was originally released, “movies would have looked a lot different a lot sooner.”