Unseen for 30 years, Soviet film director Mikhail Kalatozov's I Am Cuba surfaced to stun and delight a sold-out audience at the 1993 San Francisco International Film Festival. The print of this curious Cold War artifact had no English subtitles (confounding any attempt to follow the film's various storylines), but festivalgoers left feeling they'd gotten their money's worth, based purely on the raw magnificence of this work.
Brimming with kitschy imagery of Americans pawing at scantily clad Cuban beauties while also displaying beautiful deep-focus black-and-white cinematography of Cuban topography, I Am Cuba was just too strange and significant to be left dangling at a few select film festivals. So it has returned, in a fresh 35mm print with English subtitles.
A bizarre and agonizingly serious work of early-'60s agitprop, this Moscow/Cuban co-production depicted events of the Cuban Revolution through the eyes of one of Russia's most acclaimed international directors and through the words of Yevgeny Yevtushenko, the spokesman for Russia's new generation of poets. With the power of Mosfilm behind them and the entire island at their disposal, Kalatozov and crew undertook what they hoped would be the Potemkin of the 1960s, a rallying cry for downtrodden Latin American countries ripe to throw off the shackles of American imperialism.
What emerged, however, was one of the greatest debacles in Soviet film history. Yevtushenko's heavy poetry is used to unite four separate stories about the revolution. Such lines as “in the name of justice wherever a single person goes/ Thousands more will rise up, and when there will be no more people,/ Then the stones will rise up” may have reflected the Russian artist's idealism in watching this model transformation of a Third World colony into an outpost of communism, but they had little positive effect on Cubans.
Perhaps angered by the fact that Soviets were left in charge of telling the story of “their” revolution (and realizing the Russians had as much interest in the nightclubs and showgirls as the despotic foreigners who came before them), or sensing that the promises of mass political empowerment suggested in the film would never materialize, Cubans despised the work. At its 1964 release in Havana, audiences reportedly hooted, un-officially changing the title to I Am Not Cuba. A genuine disaster both critically and commercially, I Am Cuba disappeared after a few screenings in Russia and Cuba for the next 30 years.
But it has aged well. Employing radical camera techniques, Kalatozov, cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky and camera operator Alexander Calzatti produced a wild and dizzying display of moving pictures. The opening scene of unbridled Western decadence begins with the camera riding down the exterior elevator of a modern Havana high-rise, gliding through a bevy of bathing beauties and finally plunging into a swimming pool — all in one take.
Numerous other then-unheard-of visual tricks keep cropping up, including the use of infrared film in daylight exterior scenes to turn green leaves into white feathery wings, distorting almost every shot with an extra wide-angle lens, and — in one awe-inspiring moment — snaking the camera though a cigar-manufacturing shop, flying it over a balcony and letting it hover above a crowd mourning a murdered revolutionary.
Perhaps because the visual display so dwarfed the subject matter, I Am Cuba also died a miserable death in Kalatozov's home country. The famed director only made one more film before his death in 1973, but his legacy is assured not only for creating one of the biggest duds — as well as one of the most awesome visual creations — in Russian film history, but also for freezing a moment in time when the idealism and the promise of the Cuban Revolution were genuine.
I Am Cuba opens Fri, April 14, at the Castro in