bw 141 min.
Director: Mikhail Kalatozov
CLV: $69.95 - available
2 discs, catalog # CC1447L
There are film fossils for which cine-paleontologists search and film
fossils that just miraculously appear. / Am Cuba is among the latter-as
unexpected a find as a Siberian woolly mammoth preserved beneath the sands
of a coconut grove. Thirty-some years after its forgotten premiere, Soviet
director Mikhail Kalatozov's delirious 141-minute paean to the Cuban revolution
emerges from the vaults and onto our screens. If the film seems a bit stiff
and blinking, that's nothing compared to the disorientation it inspires.
/ Am Cuba has the rapturous quality of a Bolshevik hallucination.
Cinema history barely records that / Am Cuba was one of three
fraternal projects that the then-fledgling Cuban film institute ICAIC coproduced
with its new Warsaw Pact allies as a means of educating homegrown moviemakers.
Two were banal genre pieces: Prelude 11, by the intermittently distinguished
East German director Kurt Maetzig, was a thriller about ClA-sponsored counterrevolutionaries;
For Whom Havana Dances, by the Czech hack Vladimir Cech, set a story
of contemporary Cuba against the picturesque backdrop of Havana's carnival.
/ Am Cuba was less easy to categorize. A throwback to the red modernism
of the 1920s or a belated tribute to Sergei Eisenstein's incomplete Que
Viva Mexico, Kalatozov's sunstruck evocation of life before and during
the Cuban revolution was a critical and commercial failure-never shown outside
the USSR or Cuba until it surfaced as part of a Kalatozov tribute at the
1992 Telluride Film Festival.
A veteran director and former cameraoperator, the Georgian-born Kalatozov
(1903-73) enjoyed a varied career before venturing out into Havana's searing
tropical light. His first feature was the experimental, staged-ethnographic
documentary, Salt for Svanetia (1930). Nail in the Boot,
a 1932 treatment of the Russian Civil War, was banned but his 1941 Valery
Chkalov, a fictionalized biography of the Soviet pilot who made the
first flight from the USSR over the North Pole to the U.S., capped a popular
cycle of aviation films.
Kalatozov served as Soviet consul in L.A. during World War II, shored
up his credentials with the notorious Cold War melodrama Conspiracy of
the Doomed (1950), then signaled the post-Stalin "thaw" with
a visually stylized, almost hysterically poignant, and extremely popular
World War II romance, The Cranes Are Flying (1957). This last feature
marked the beginning of a three-film partnership with virtuoso cinematographer
Sergei Urusevsky (1908-74), a former combat cameraman as well as a disciple
of the Cubo-Futurist painter-photographer-graphic designer Alexander Rodchenko.
I Am Cuba's episodic script was cowritten by two young poets,
Soviet bard Yevgeny Yevtushenko and Cuban writer Enrique Pineda garnet.
Sent by Pravda to newly-revolutionized Cuba as a "poetry correspondent"
during the spring of 1961, Yevtushenko spent six months on the island in
the aftermath of the abortive, ClA-sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion -- learning
Spanish, traveling the countryside, and hanging out with Fidel.
Although the September 1961 publication of Yevtushenko's anti-antisemitic
poem "Babi Yar" made it more difficult for Kalatozov and Urusevsky
to secure the poet's services for their planned Cuba project, Yevtushenko
traveled again to Havana with the two filmmakers during the winter of 1962
to work on the script. ("It was a big change," the poet recalled
from the perspective of 1995. "The dancers at the Tropicana had holes
in their tights," and "the wind was whistling" through the
empty market: "They already had the Russian system." Women queuing
for tins of Bulgarian stuffed grape leaves "were looking at us in hatred
and screaming 'Ruso Go Home.' " Kalatozov and Urusevsky were shocked.
"We decided then to make the film not about contemporary Cuba but the
beginning of the revolution.")
Yevtushenko was still in Cuba at the height of the Missile Crisis. The
front page of the October 25, 1962 issue of Pravda featured his editorial
in verse, "Letter to America," phoned in from Havana the night
America, I'm writing to you from Cuba,
Where the crags and the cheekbones
Of rigid sentries shine anxiously tonight
In the gusting storm....
A tobacconist, carrying a revolver, prepares
to leave for the harbor,
A shoemakercleans an old machine gun,
A showgirl from a cabaret, wearing army boots,
Goes along with a carpenter to stand guard....
When / Am Cuba began shooting in January 1963, however, the poet
was no longer on the scene -- again, he says, in official disgrace.
Moreover, in the wake of the Missile Crisis, relations between Castro and
Sovit premier Nikita Khrushchev cooled precipitously. Interestingly, Yevtushenko
had only recently held up Cuba to Khrushchev as a mode. "My recent
work has been very closely connected with Cuba," the poet told the
premier in a celebrated public exchange on the value of modern art. "I
like Cuban abstrac very much...Cuban abstract art enjoys great popularity
among Cuban people and their leaders. Fidel Castro is keen on it. Cuban
abstract art helps the revolution."
Relentlessly visual if not completely abstract, / Am Cuba employs
relatively sparse dialogue in the service of four narrative vignettes, more
or less delineating the progress from prerevolutionary despair to armed
struggle. The movie opens bird's-eye view of pristine beaches and primordial
palm trees, the contrast between sand and sky intensified by the use of
infrared film stock, the wide-angle lens warping space and elongating the
Cuban natives. "Ships took my sugar and left me in tears the female
narrator sonorously inttones (first in Spanish, then another voice follows
in Russian). Almost immediately, however, suffering is upstaged by aestheticism.
Using a specially constructed external elevator and handing off the production's
single Eclair from one operator to another to a third, Urusevsky contrived
for the camera to swoop among Havana's skyscrapers, land on the deck of
a luxury penthouse, insinuate itself amid a gaggle of bikini-clad jet-setters
then, still in a single continuous shot beneath the chlorinated water of
the rooftop swimming pool.
Welcome to the Tropicana! Downstairs is the cabaret -- designated site
of Cuban degradation and American imperialism, here visualized as something
out of La Dolce Vita. (Interestingly, the Cuban release of I Am Cuba
followed a fierce debate in the Cuban press and the United Cuban Revolutionary
Socialist Party about whether the Fellini film, among the most popular movies
released in 1963, was suitable entertainment for Cuba's new enfranchised
working class.) Two slick rockers-one an ex-member of the Platters! --
croon a ballad in praise of "loco amor," as American tourists
ogle writhing dancer-prostitutes, when not rendering them in suitably degenerate
Treating the nightclub interior like the material of a taffy pull, bobbing
and weaving through a foliage of foreground clutter and masklike faces,
Urusevsky films the orgiastic floor show iike a participant. For all the
contorted performers, the Eclair is the star. Throughout the movie, Urusevsky's
wildly tilted, often filtered, sometimes spinning, almost always hand-held
"emotional camera" keeps the viewer in a permanent state of vertigo.
Some shots feel as if filmed from a hammock, others from a dolly whose tracks
are laid across the sky. (The cranes are really flying here!)
The second, shorter episode leaves decadent Havana, where even the taxis
are Cadillacs, for the countryside-although, even here, a farmer's humble
hut offers ample arena for Urusevsky's loop-the-loop camerawork. The dispossessed
peasant sends his teenage children to town (where they spend his last peso
swilling Coca-Cola and playing the jukebox), then torches his sugar crop
-- the camera spinning like a corkscrew through the flaming cane field.
(Kalatozov and Urusevsky evidently improvised a closed-circuit camera viewing
system for this sequence, which echoes the set piece of their previous feature,
The Letter Never Sent, wherein Soviet geologists flee a brush
fire in the taiga.)
Maintaining the fiery metaphor, while picking up the revolutionary pace,
the movie's third and longest section returns to Havana. A newsreel of Cuba's
pre-Castro dictator Fulgencio Batista is revealed, as the camera tracks
back, to be projected on a drive-in movie screen. A group of student Fidelistas
hurl firebombs at the image, setting it aflame. When the police shoot a
student distributing antigovernment leaflets from a campus balcony, the
swirling camera accentuates the trajectory of his fall-shadows of fluttering
leaflets caress him as he lies on the pavement. (Topping even this overheated
symbolism, a dead dove falls from the sky as other students march toward
the waiting fire hoses of Batista's gendarmes.)
The murder of another student leader provides material for one more visual
tour de force -- the victim advancing into swirling smoke and spattered
by water even as he is gunned down -- but the most extraordinary shot is
reserved for a funeral procession. As the young martyrs are borne through
the narrow streets of downtown Havana, the camera ascends over the crowd
to a fifth-story loft to observe a group of cigar workers leaving their
tables to unfurl a commemorative banner from their window, and then -- still
in one unbroken take -- floats out into space to follow, overhead, the parade
of mourners. (According to camera operator Alexander Calzatti, this astonishing
effect was achieved by rigging a jerrybuilt cable over the chasm between
one building and another.)
Finally, having established the traditional worker-peasant-intellectual
triumvirate, / Am Cuba visits the rebel stronghold of Oriente Province
for a mini-drama of revolutionary conversion. A peon family shelters a fugitive
Fidelista -- although his attempt to raise their consciousness fails until
they are subject to gratuitous bombing by Batista's air force. Saturation
bombast is the operative strategy. / Am Cuba is a movie in which
drunken American sailors saunter past Havana's illuminated storefronts,
declaring themselves the "heroes of old Uncle Sam," while stalwart
guerrillas march singing into battle, smiling through the explosions. (When
captured and interrogated as to the whereabouts of their leader, the revolutionaries
paraphrase Spartacus, individually proclaiming, "I am Fidel.")
As the narrator informs us in a burst of official bluster, "These are
the people about whom legends will be told."
Everything is as true as its pose. History is made with the inevitable
monument in mind. Thus, for all its splendid expressionist frenzy, / Am
Cuba is formidably static -- memorializing, as if in granite,
the hopes, illusions, and hysteria of 1963. / Am Cuba petrifies the
moment when an already moribund Socialist Realism dared to cha-cha-cha.
-- J. Hoberman
J. Hoberman is a film critic for The Village Voice and the author
of Vulgar Modernism: Writing on the Movies and Other Media (Temple
Luz Maria Collazo ... Maria/Betty
Jose Gallardo ... Pedro
Jean Bouise ... Jim
Raul Garcia ... Enrique
Sergio Corrieri ... Alberto
Roberto Garcia York ... American activist
Luisa Maria Jimenez ... Teresa
Mario Gonzalez ... Pablo
Celia Rodriguez ... Gloria
With Alberto Morgan, Fausto Mirabal, Maria de las Mercedes
Diez, Jesus del Monte, Salvador Vud, Barbara Dominiquez, Tony Lopez, Hector
Castaneda, Rosando Lamadris, and Raquel Revuelta as Cuba's voice
Produced and directed by ... Mikhail Kalatozov
Screenplay ... Yevgeny Yevtushenko & Enrique Pineda Barnet
Camera director ... Sergei Urusevsky
Production director ... Yevgeny Svidetelev
Music ... Carlos Farinas
Artistic consultation and costumes ... Rene Portocarrero
Editor ... N. Glagoleva
Sound ... V. Sharun
ABOUT THE TRANSFER
I Am Cuba is presented in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.33:1.
This new digital transfer was created from a 35mm fine grain master manufactured
from the original negative. The sound was mastered from the 35mm magnetic