Mikhail Kalatozov’s 1964 film, I Am Cuba (Soy Cuba) is probably the most divergent film I’ve ever watched in terms of the quality of its constituent parts. It is, as its reputation boasts, visually stunning, imaginative, innovative, and flat out great. But, in terms of its narrative, it is hackneyed, trite, and unimaginatively anti-American in its blatant agitprop, and laughably bad. And I say this fully aware of the Ugly Americanism that has wrought the communist fervour that still grips South America, as well as the Islamic Extremism, because the propagandising in the film has a seriously negative effect on the film, to the point that its labeling as ‘Commie kitsch’ by many of its detractors, and even some of its champions, is dead on.
The film was a joint Soviet-Cuban production, meant as blatant propaganda for the Communist cause, but Kalatozov’s film so rhapsodised Cuban sexuality and reveled so in its visuals, that even its backers as Mosfilms, the Soviet State film company, pulled it after a short distribution period. It was critically denounced both in Cuba and the Soviet Union. It was not until filmmakers Martin Scorsese and Francs Ford Coppola saw and championed it in 1995 that the film got its first taste of critical success in the West. The film was written by Enrique Pineda Barnet and Russian state poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko and the cinematography by Sergey Urusevsky, as mentioned, deserves all the plaudits it can muster. The acting is passable, at best, and wooden, stilted, and forced, most of the time. The film was shot in black and white, and used using color filters to exaggerate contrast, as well as using wide angle shots in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The film’s music is diegetic and not, but the one aspect of the film that is neither good not bad, overall; although in certain scenes the singing and music are wonderfully evocative of time and place.
The film very sketchily details the Cuban Revolution, under Fidel Castro, and the downfall of Fulgencio Batista, his predecessor. It is told in four tales, spread over the film’s 140 minute running time. While the DVD has nice, easily read golden subtitles, which stand out well against the black and white images, the print of the film, by Image Entertainment, retains the original Cuban narration, as well as the delayed Russian translation (spoken and layered over the Spanish track). Thus one gets an annoying triple whammy! The lone extra feature the DVD boasts is the film’s original theatrical trailer. The first tale follows a black prostitute named Betty, who is the object of affection of the rich American tourist class. One letch, in particular, not only coaxes her into bed, but basically demands he buy her crucifix. She lives in a shanty town with other blacks, and the depiction of Cuban racism is quite jarring. Of course, the Americans are all stereotypes, and even Betty’s boyfriend - a fruit dealer - is really a smuggler or drug dealer.
The second tale deals with an old man named Pedro, who works a cane field for his landlord, who sells out to United Fruit, and tells him to get off the land. In revenge, Pedro torches the field and his shack. The third tale is likely the most hagiographic, and least affecting. It follows young college rebels who seek martyrdom, and who get it via death. One, named Enrique, ponders assassinating a fat, local cop who corruptly has killed some of his friends (and interesting evokes a pose and stance that eerily foretells the assassination of JFK- conspiracy theorists have been slow to jump on this foreshadowing!). But, as the man frolics with his children, he cannot do it, and, naturally, during a march turned riot, is gunned down by the cop. The rabid anti-Americanism reaches its nadir near the start of this section, where a band of American sailors sing songs of the good ol’ USA, with lyrics only a Communist could invent) as they try to rape a girl named Gloria, they harass on the street. They are stopped only by a lone Communist student: Enrique the soon to be martyr.
The last tale follows a mountain farmer named Mariano who refuses to fight with the rebels until a government plane bombs his home and kills one of his four children. It ends with Mariano enthused and triumphant (the only of the four characters to so victor), and meeting up with a rebel soldier he had earlier chided, both of them admitting that they knew he would eventually join up. The film ends with the narrator proclaiming these men would go down in history, and, in one of the few truths the film’s message bears, she is right. Unfortunately, it was not the sort of history to be proud of, as the last five decades plus of Communist rule have left Cuba in a far worse position than it was, as Fidel Castro proved to be more corrupt and murderous than Batista, to the point one could even call Batista an amateur dictator compared to Castro.
It is interesting to compare I Am Cuba to a similarly themed film, made three years later, in Hungary, by Miklós Jancsó, called The Red And The White. While not a great film, that work, at least, shows a balance that lifts it above being blatant propaganda. Both sides, in that film, are shown as doing evil so routinely that, as they battle, the viewer almost forgets which side is which, for they truly become reprehensible mirror images. I Am Cuba’s good guys, on the other hand, are so good and so put upon, and its bad guys, American and Batistan, are so bad, that there is nothing that even lets any tension nor drama come into the film. Another film that compares to this, but far more favorably, is the great Henri-Georges Clouzot film, made about a decade earlier, The Wages Of Fear. That film’s anti-Americanism is far more subtle and artful, plus it has a great narrative, as well as well shot scenes. I Am Cuba is an interesting curio of a bygone era, and one wishes that more films would partake in the sheer visual joy this one exults in (such as the rapid back and forth of the camera during one dance scene, or the Fellini-like use of grotesques), but, for anyone other than a film enthusiast, there is little this film offers. Nonetheless, I am glad to have seen it, flaws and all, for it is a rare work whose historical import is enough to make its hit and miss art worthwhile. Take a hit.