I Am Cuba Review
There’s a very strong possibility that you’ve never quite come across a film like I Am Cuba. Its director’s earlier and most famous work, 1958’s Palme d’Or winning The Cranes Are Flying, may offer slight hints, but hints they remain and ones relating more to style than substance at that. Mikhail Kalatozov’s efforts are part documentary and part flamboyant cinematic fantasy, part social realist statement of immense propagandist leanings and part musical. Yet because it evades such easy categorising, or rather unashamedly flits between and cross-pollinates them, I Am Cuba can never be successfully pinned down. The best option is simply to let it take you where it may, though there’s an equally strong possibility that this won’t quite be to where you expect.
It’s important to state immediately, however, that this isn’t because we have a director seemingly out of control or being wilfully wayward, but rather one who is bursting with confidence. I Am Cuba, despite its many divergent qualities, is assured in both visual and structural term. In essence it can be divided into four sections, each serving as its own narrative or chapter and each focussing on a particular individual. Thus, over the course of the film, we meet a lower-class prostitute, an ageing sharecropper, a revolutionary, and an innocent hard working farmer. Through them we get to witness both the rural side of Cuba and its more modern dimensions. Moreover, as the title suggests, each in some way embodies Cuba or what it represents: the island is its people, and its people the island.
Certainly, this correlates with Kalatozov’s love affair with everything put in front of his camera. Perhaps the title really refers to the film itself such is its desire to capture so much and in such overtly visual terms at that. The opening shot, which plays under the initial credits, is a lengthy aerial take which laps up the island’s natural beauty before settling on some equally fascinating (in Kalatozov’s eyes) villagers. From here we’re straight into a pop concert atop a skyscraper and so begins another long take: it ogles the guitars, then some bikini-clad revellers and even takes a dip in the pool. The point is that the camera can float wherever it wishes to go, whether that be the “old” Cuba or the “new” Cuba. In Kalatozov’s eyes it all comes to represent the same thing.
The key thing to understand is that I Am Cuba isn’t representing a vérité record of its chosen subject, but is more controlled and choreographed than that. It doesn’t present the Cuba of popular image which we find in more “genuine” documentaries such as Buena Vista Social Club or Comandante, but instead offers a brighter, more glistening image. At times it feels like a cousin to Fellini’s La dolce vita - plenty of cool shades and Beat Generation beards – at others it’s more markedly theatrical. A scene towards the end of the first story, most notably, presents a row of shacks in such a manner that it recalls the unlikely offspring of One From the Heart and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Furthermore, there’s a sparseness to the dialogue which emphasises not only the musical dimensions (Carlos Farinas provides a startling score of light jazz and Latin rhythms plus there’s even a scene involving singing sailors à la On the Town or Anchors Aweigh - and let’s not forget that it’s a music label, Mr. Bongo, who is issuing this disc), but also the heightened melodrama. Were it not for Farinas’ contribution, I Am Cuba could almost be mistaken for a silent movie.
In combination the results are something akin to a two-hour plus grandiose dream sequence. And it’s here where the claims that Kalatozov has produced “communist kitsch” regularly surface. The problem with such accusations (though they could be taken in another way, namely that of camp – the reason, no doubt, as to why this disc’s sleeve reiterates them) is that they suggest something far more agitated and overripe than proves to be the case. Indeed, I Am Cuba is really quite a calm creation; as said, it floats through its running time, courtesy of its pre-Steadicam crane shots. (In fact, in this respect it may also share a kinship with Sokurov’s Russian Ark.) Visually it more readily recalls the avant-garde than any trashy affectations, bringing to mind the likes of Maya Deren and Jean Genet, but without ever directly referencing them. It’s more of a shared essence in play and as such I Am Cuba never once surrenders its uniqueness. It’s able to encompass neo-realism and cine-poeticism, even the war movie and the political thriller, not to mention the documentary and the musical. And yet at the same time it remains utterly coherent. To repeat my opening claim, you’ve never quite come across a film like I Am Cuba. And it’s equally unlikely that we ever will again.
I Am Cuba is gaining a UK release as a Region 0 disc courtesy of Mr. Bongo. On the whole, it has also been blessed with a fine presentation, one which preserves the original Academy ratio as well as the original mono soundtrack. In both case, the disc serves them especially well. The print demonstrates very minor instances of damage on occasion, but otherwise is in fantastic condition. The clarity is fine as are the contrast levels, and technically the disc does little wrong. The only complaint is some intermittent edge enhancement and the fact that the graininess of the image prompts some artefacting, but neither of these proves especially distracting.
As for the soundtrack here we find the original mixture of Spanish and English dialogue with optional English subtitles where applicable. Presented as a PCM track it sounds absolutely fine. Damage is to a minimum, the score in particular comes across especially well, and the clarity is such we can easily the actors who were dubbed in post-production.
Disappointingly, however, the disc comes without a single extra. The US Image release offered only a trailer, but in this case we were promised a two-disc edition complete with Vincente Farraz’s feature-length documentary Soy Cuba, O Mamute Siberiano/I Am Cuba, A Siberian Mammoth, plus an interview with Martin Scorsese which cropped up on the French release. Indeed, they would no doubt have made for terrific extras, but alas this is not to be. Still, we do find the film in excellent condition and as such the disc should still find an audience.
Last updated: 13/05/2018 06:36:28