I Am Cuba (1964)

“I am Cuba. Once, Christopher Columbus landed here. He wrote in his diary: “This is the most beautiful land ever seen by human eyes.” Thank you, Señor Columbus. When you saw me for the first time, I was singing and laughing. I waved the fronds of my palms to greet your sails. I thought your ships brought happiness. I am Cuba. Ships took my sugar, and left me tears. Strange thing… sugar, Señor Columbus. It contains so many tears, but it is sweet…”

‘I Am Cuba’, directed by Mikhail Kalatozov in 1964, is a Soviet sponsored Cuban movie that seeks to mythologise the 1959 Cuban revolution, to criticise the decadence of the US and to promote communist socialism. It does this by telling four stories, each examining the effects of the revolution and of Western imperialism on individuals: famers, students and a nightclub dancer. The political propagandising is clunky and not subtle, but the real quality of this movie lies in its cinematography and revolutionary visual effects. The camera roams in long, unbroken shots often floating off the sides of buildings and even drifting underwater all before the invention of the steadicam or drone. The effect is, in part like being a spectator, but when the camera flies the spectator becomes omnipresent and this is matched by the poetic linking voiceover (see the quote above), opening each story with the words “soy Cuba” (“I am Cuba”) and turning the country itself into a character. The overall effect is a little like ‘Koyaanisqatsi’ or even ‘Russian Ark’: the viewer is allowed a God-like view that takes in the landscape but that occasionally dips into fragments of history or the lives of people. The elaborate filming, whilst tricksy, is entirely appropriate for this reason and does more than simply add gloss to the story. The highlights of the film are definitely these long, mind-bending takes, but also the feeling, albeit with a Soviet spin, that we are seeing the flipside of the US movie industry. It’s fascinating to see Americans being demonised in this way and encourages you to think again, particularly about the anti-communist movies that Hollywood was producing at the time.

Would I recommend it? Yes, for the visuals. Maybe with ‘Russian Ark’ or even ‘La Dolce Vita’. Apparently Fellini’s style was an influence on ‘I Am Cuba’.

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