Criterion Prediction #191: I Am Cuba, by Alexander Miller
Title: I Am Cuba
Director: Mikhail Kalatozov
Cast: Sergio Corrieri, Luz Maria Collazo, Jose Gallardo, Jean Bouise
Synopsis: I Am Cuba is built of four contrasting stories that shine a light on varied but consistent struggles of the Cuban people, from the farmers who toil at the mercy of landlords corrupted by capitalism or student revolutionaries, driven by the need to enact change by any means necessary.
Critique: Has there ever been a more beautiful marriage of art and propaganda? Furthermore, has there ever been a more artistically rewarding international co-production, where the culturally informed aesthetic expression and the political fervour coincide between two nations to a point where it seems like a baffling turn of fate? After journeying through the various avenues of Soviet expressionism, wartime melodramas and neorealist movies from around the world, nothing really comes close to the essence Mikhail Kalatozov captures with his seminal I Am Cuba.
After overthrowing the United States-backed reign of the fascistic Fulgencio Batista, Cuba, now a socialist nation thanks to Castro’s initiated policies sought to find a filmic partnership with the USSR, seeing as the US was no longer a candidate once diplomatic and trade unions dissolved in 1961. However, would an American backed movie about cultural oppression and economic degradation have any resonance? Despite our revolutionary establishment, we seem more adept at causing cultural abuse and economic degradation than anything else. Given both nations’ shared platforms, the genesis of I Am Cuba was in the interest of spreading socialism on a global level. Kalatozov’s body of work included the visually bombastic Letter Never Sent and The Cranes are Flying, emblematic of the post-thaw era in the wake of Stalin’s death. Bolstering his committed direction was his collaborating cinematographer and combat camera operator Sergei Urusevsky. I Am Cuba came to be their most beautiful, albeit final, achievement.
Kalatozov and Urusevsky’s realization of Cuba’s struggle leading up to and during their revolution has an intuitive exploratory dreaminess that almost feels like it was conjured by a clairvoyant insurrectionist.
The brazen influence of Soviet Expression is instilled in the film’s fiery undercurrent. There’s no mystery or subtlety where the filmmaker’s sympathies lie. It’s hard not to think of the Odessa steps sequence when student protestors march through Havana or of the infamous unfinished Que Viva Mexico. Naturally, Soviet filmmaking sensibilities would align with the Cuban struggle and the film goes as far as to literally give the nation a voice in the movie as an offscreen narrator (credited as the voice of Cuba) lends insights to the material between segments, lending a metaphysically quality to the proceedings.
I Am Cuba has spirit and tenacity but it’s not fist-pumping indignation. There’s an outright condemnation of foreign intervention and oppression but the weightless technical wizardry and now legendary camera work is not only dazzling to see (especially now, weighed against the glut of CG assisted long-takes that play like a game of one-upmanship), given the level of guerrilla-like techniques that were invested into their creation. I Am Cuba operates as if it was issued from an undiscovered avenue in our cinematic paeon; it’s as if the mythos of revolutionary doctrine was coupled with the urgency of overthrowing oppression and the result is both ethereal and tenacious. A student protestor sets out during a demonstration, a long take charting his march he grows impervious to the streams of the fire hoses, plumes of black smoke envelope him, once were lulled into thinking he might be protected by some kind of otherworldly guardian he’s gunned down. Then in the film’s arguably most famous sequence, an extended shot of a funeral procession, a coffin cloaked in the Cuban flag is carried through the streets. The camera follows and continues over the roads filled with legions of people, as if those who die for their nation and the freedom of their people are not nameless martyrs but inevitably fated to make an ascension.
Why It Belongs in the Collection: For the longest time, I had simply expected Criterion to upgrade I Am Cuba from the limbo that is their early, LaserDisc titles but, after years of anticipation, it seemed like this coveted title wouldn’t receive a newly minted spine number. However, there’s a restored 4K print touring. Seeing as the film was initially restored by Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese, the latter of whom has worked with Criterion in bringing lost or coveted rarities to their library, it would make sense to see this culturally vital movie back in the fold.