1964 bw 141 min.
Director: Mikhail Kalatozov
CLV: $69.95 - available
2 discs, catalog # CC1447L

Untitled Document

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 before:

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 Picasso-like sketches.

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 University Press).



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


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 tracks.

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