There is a shot near the beginning of "I Am Cuba" that
is one of the most astonishing I have ever seen. Reflect that it was made in
1964, long before the days of lightweight cameras and Steadicams, and the shot
is almost impossible to explain.
begins on a rooftop deck of a luxury hotel in pre-Castro Havana. A beauty
pageant is in progress. The camera sinuously winds its way past bathing
beauties, and then moves over the edge of the deck and descends vertically,
apparently floating, down three or four stories to another deck, this one with
a swimming pool. The camera approaches a bar, and then follows a waitress as
she delivers a drink to some tourists, after which one of the tourists stands
up and walks into the pool - and the camera follows her, so that the shot ends
with the camera actually underwater.
nearly as I can tell, this is all done in one unbroken take. How it was done, I
have no idea. It is interesting not only for its technical skill, but also
because it betrays a certain interest in la dolce vita that is not entirely in
keeping with the movie's revolutionary, agitprop stance.
Am Cuba" is an anti-American propaganda film, made as a Cuban-Soviet
co-production, that has been snatched from oblivion, restored, and released in
the United States as a presentation of Martin Scorsese and Francis Coppola.
Since the film's prediction of a brave new world under Fidel Castro has not
resulted in a utopia for Cubans, who suffer under one of the world's most
dismal bureaucracies, the film today seems naive and dated - but fascinating.
Soviets fielded a first-class team of advisers to help in the production. The
script was co-authored by Yevgeny Yevtushenko, then the USSR's poetic
superstar, and Enrique Pineda Barnet, a Cuban novelist. It was directed by the
veteran Russian filmmaker Mikhail Kalatozov, then 61, whose "The Cranes
are Flying" (1957) had won the Palme d'Or at Cannes a few years earlier.
That film featured spectacular camera techniques, but they are upstaged by his
opener in "I Am Cuba" and by some of the other sequences, which owe
much to Fellini's influential "La Dolce Vita" (1960).
movie is didactic in the best tradition of Socialist Realism. First, it shows
Cuba groaning under the yoke of Yankee imperialism. Then it shows resistance, by
brave farmers and heroic students. Finally, there is the appearance of a great
revolutionary hero, a bearded man of the people who fights in the hills, is
sheltered by peasants and represents Fidel Castro.
anti- American content is handled in a nightclub scene, where gum-chewing
Yankees ogle the prostitutes, and one amateur anthropologist announces,
"I'd like to see where these women live." Against her better
judgment, a girl takes the man home to her shack, where he offends her by
offering to buy her crucifix. Worse, they are discovered by her fiancé, a
humble fruit peddler, who believed she was a virgin. This sequence, heavy on
schmaltz, nevertheless has a real poignancy.
film is not done with Americans. We see drunken American sailors chasing women
through the streets, and follow the story of a hard-working peasant whose lands
and home are snatched by the United Fruit Co. Rather than surrender his cane
fields, he sets them afire.
we see the resistance: students agitating the change, including one who
mimeographs propaganda pamphlets and then is shot dead, his body covered in a
snow of the revolutionary sheets.
fancy shots are not limited to the opening extravaganza. There is a sequence
later in the film that begins with the streets filling with demonstrators and
then seemingly floats, in an unbroken take, into a high-rise cigar factory. His
technique seems somewhat at odds with his purpose (you won't find shots like
these in Italian neo-realism), but then the movie itself alternates between
lyricism and propaganda. Along with the scenes of evil Yankees and brave
Castroites, there are astonishing helicopter shots of Cuban landscapes, and
poetry and prose are read on the soundtrack (Columbus is quoted: "This is
the most beautiful land ever seen by human eyes").
movie, now in limited distribution before a video release, is of course dated
in its politics. Even its depravities and imperialist Yankee misbehavior seem
quaint. But as an example of lyrical black and white filmmaking, it is still
stunning. If you see it, try to figure out how the camera floated down that