The 1964 film I Am Cuba isn’t quite like anything you’ve ever seen. Filmed during the early years of Castro’s reign, the 160 minute black-and-white epic opens with the camera descending from the heavens to tag along as a barefoot peasant slowly makes his way downriver in a small boat. A female voice on the sound-track is soon revealed to be the title character, and she addresses her thoughts to the Genoa-born explorer we all know as “Señor Columbus”: “I waved the fronds of my palms to greet your sails. I thought your ship brought happiness.” Instead, the ships “took my sugar, and left my tears.”
Soon we cut to the roof of a building in Batista’s Havana, where some musicians who look like they’re straight out of a college production of the absurdist play “Ubu Roi” are blasting away, while women in bathing suits are having their flesh appraised by decadent Americans in sunglasses conducting a beauty contest. The camera then slowly pans down, passing floor after floor filled with cheering tourists, until it reaches the swimming pool and follows a woman as she rises from her lounge chair, walks to the pool’s edge and dives in. The camera plunges in after her, continuing to track underwater. By now, the viewer has probably figured but two things about I Am Cuba: it is a virtuosic blast, and it’s not a movie that’s likely to be taken in quite the way the filmmakers intended.
Meant as a portrait of the soul of the country, the movie incorporates four unconnected storylines that are meant to demonstrate the need for the revolution. After the opening section, which is full of roistering Americans taking sinister advantage of Cuban b-girls (one of whom has some kind of seizure on the dance floor after apparently being overcome by the wild jungle rhythms of the jazz band), we’re taken to the farming country, where an old sharecropper burns down his fields and shack rather than allow them to fall into the hands of the capitalist United Fruit Company octopus.
Here, as in the rest of the film, the editoralizing matters less than the awesome visual effects achieved by the director, Mikhail Kalatozov, and his cinematographer, Serguey Urusevsky. The tilted camera angles on the face of the old farmer and the glistening images of cane fields under blackening skies dotted with silver clouds suggest the tension of a science fiction movie, while later in the film, when the people take up arms and engage in jungle warfare against government soldiers, the violent imagery isn’t horrifying, and it isn’t stirring in the way Kalatozov must have wanted it to be. It’s strange, beautiful and moving because it’s an abstract visual poem on conflict and chaos.
I Am Cuba casts a spell, and once the film ends, you’ll immediately want to know what the filmmakers thought they were doing, and how the hell they did it. That’s why the new “Ultimate Edition” three-disc DVD set is such a prize. Besides the movie itself and a documentary about Kalatozov, it includes Vicente Ferraz’s 2005 making-of documentary I Am Cuba: The Siberian Mammoth. The movie grew out of the first flowering of the love affair between Castro’s Cuba and the Soviet Union, when the two countries agreed that a Russian-Cuban co-production celebrating the revolution would be just the thing to cement their partnership, and might also help spread the Socialist message around the world.
Kalatozov, who had recently had a major international success with The Cranes Are Flying, was appointed to head the project, and he and his crew embarked on a tropical location shoot that would go on for years. They spent a great deal of money, and they also poured an incredible amount of creative energy and technical innovation into the project, applying themselves to such problems as how to bring off the long, complex tracking shots the director wanted and how to keep that camera going as it was submerged in the pool.