Monday, August 22, 2011

I Am Cuba, Nice To Meet You

I Am Cuba

The Must See List series has been a rather interesting venture so far. Not only am I catching up on some great films, but I am discovering amazing ones that I never knew existed. One example of this is I Am Cuba, a film that was recommended by fellow Toronto film blogger Bob from Eternal Sunshine of the Logical Mind. I was a little apprehensive when I discovered that it was a film about Cuba with a Russian director, Mikhail Kalatozov. I was not sure what slant the movie would take. However, I trust Bob’s taste in films, and considering that he has not lead me astray so far, I tried to go in with an open mind and I am glad I did.

Originally released in 1964, but largely ignored until the likes of Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola sang its praises in the 90’s, I Am Cuba is a film that explores life in Cuba prior to the Castro-led revolution. Told through four distinct vignettes, and guided by a female voice-over representing the land itself, the film mixes the dreamy allure of Cuba with a stark realism of life under the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. One story focus on Maria (Luz María Collazo), a woman from a shanty town who works as a dancer at a posh American friendly casino, whose morals are tested when a wealthy American offers her money for a one-night fling. The second story centres around a farmer, Pedro (José Gallardo), whose farm land has been sold to a major corporation. The third, and most compelling story, follows a pro-revolution student, Enrique (Raúl García), who is selected to assassinate a prominent figure. And the last story involves a farmer, Alberto (Sergio Corrieri), who ends up joining the rebel army after his house is bombed by the government in error.

What immediately strikes the viewer about I Am Cuba is how stunningly beautiful the film is. Even when documenting some of Cuba’s less than desirable moments, the film finds a way to make the land seem appealing. Kalatozov uses many smart camera techniques to give the film a grand scale feel despite its modest budget. Whether he is mimicking what feels like to fall from great height, pretending the camera is a pack of army dogs chasing after a rebel solider, or staging an elaborate bombing sequence where you never actually see the planes, Kalatozov’s film is really a treat to watch. There is a fantastic tracking shot where the camera follows a funeral procession from street level, then rises up four or five stories, goes through a window of a factory, and proceeds through the factory until it gets to the next window. The audience cannot help but ponder how such a shot was achieved back then.

The film is stunning to look at, but there is also a poetic charm to it as well. While many cinephiles tend to argue the poetic appeal of films such as Tree of Life, this film actually finds a way to incorporate poetry into the overall narrative without it being a distraction. Cuba’s voice-overs are especially effective as they really hit home the message that outsiders turn a blind eye to the oppression of the people. It also must be said that the music in the film plays just as an important role as the poetry. In many ways the music is an additional character prominently featured in each of the vignettes.

I Am Cuba does have a very strong pro-Castro slant, but that should not deter audiences from seeing the film. If anything it makes the film even more intriguing as it provides a point of view rarely seen on screen. Even if they do not agree with the politics, the four vignettes and the overall technical marvel of the film will be enough to keep audiences intrigued over multiple viewings.

I Am Cuba is part of our "The Must See List" series. The film was recommended by Bob


  1. I'm so glad you liked it Courtney! It's not an especially easy one to recommend to anyone - the propaganda is writ LARGE, the acting is so-so, the voice dubbing is not great, etc. - but the stories are still engaging, show an interesting view of the divide between the wealthy and the poor (not to mention the American element) and is shot so creatively and gorgeously that any film fan should find something to appreciate.

    I think I must have heard of this film from Siskel and Ebert back when it was first getting its renewed 90s interest (via Scorsese). I remember the commentary track of "Boogie Nights" really got me interested as PTA was talking about the pool scene and how he lifted the idea of the camera diving into the water with the swimmer (and then saying "and we took it one step further by continuing out of the pool again..."). But when I saw the full scene - my goodness. And the parade sequence is astonishing - when that camera steps out the window and just glides above the street and over the heads of the thousands of people jamming it I literally had my jaw drop. The cinematography throughout is stunning (the crops burning is another phenomenal scene).

    Director Kalatozov also did "The Cranes Are Flying" (a Criterion release) which also contains some wonderful camera work (the same cinematographer worked on both I believe). An example scene is here which shows a handheld camera that follows a character off a bus, through huge crowds and then suddenly starts rising above them all in a crane shot.

  2. @Bob – While the acting is indeed so-so at times, I found the stories so engaging that I was willing to overlook the uneven performances. The class divide, and the American influence, reminded me of the 2005 film Vers Le Sud which starred Charlotte Rampling. Although that film was set in Haiti many of the themes are the same. I would not be surprised if it was influenced by I Am Cuba.

    Also I had no idea that the film influenced the pool scene in Boogie Nights. My respect for PTA, which was already huge, grew a little more when I read that. Both the scene in that film and the one in I Am Cuba work beautifully.

    I will keep and eye out for The Cranes Are Flying.


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