‘I am Cuba’ continues its ascent from oblivion

Enrique Pineda Barnet, co-author of the script, qualifies it as ‘an ode to Cuba, with all the poetry of the images of Sergei Urusevsky and the music of Carlos Fariñas.’
Enrique Pineda Barnet, co-author of the script, qualifies it as ‘an ode to Cuba, with all the poetry of the images of Sergei Urusevsky and the music of Carlos Fariñas.’

The 1964 movie Soy Cuba accomplished far more than its propaganda goals. The Cuban-Soviet co-production, today considered a classic and admired by film icons like Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, was filmed on the island with two goals. Moscow wanted to continue selling socialism around the world and the Cuban government wanted to strengthen the image of its revolution.

But director Mijail Kalatozov and cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky fell in love with Cuba and produced something of a tropical Dolce Vita. The Cubans complained that they were stereotyped once again: dance, music, cabarets, poverty and glamor mixed in the Third World. The Russians did not fail to notice that their masterful images in black and white did little to condemn “decadent” capitalism.

Havana was still displaying its full splendor at the time, and that baroque world of women with big hats sunning themselves in rooftop pools in the modern Vedado neighborhood, with the Malecon boulevard and the ocean in the background, did not really match the image of the devoted kolkhoz women from the collective farms of the Soviet Union.

In the end, the film fell into disgrace. It was canned, as censors usually do, and it was only after the adoration of Scorsese and Coppola led to the re-issue of I am Cuba by Milestone Films in 1995 that its process of redemption began.

More than 50 years after it was filmed, the classic will be shown starting Friday on the big screen at the O Cinema on Miami Beach. The theater is directed by Kareem Tabsch and Vivian Martell.

Soy Cuba is one of those rare pieces of movie making that overall deserves all the bragging, admiration and mystery surrounding it,” said Tabsch, who agrees that the film missed the mark on its original goals.. “In its attempt to portray the excesses of the bourgeois in Havana as decadent hedonism influenced by the United States, the film manages not only to capture the glamor of the Cuba of 1950, but to magnify and make it irresistibly attractive.”

If the film failed as a propaganda vehicle to promote socialism, Tabsch added, as “a work of cinematographic ethnography it is incomparable.”

Cuban movie director Enrique Pineda Barnet, who co-wrote the script with Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, believes the film is “an ode to Cuba, turned requiem, with all the poetry of the images

Carlos Fariñas, one of the island’s most important composers, put music to Pineda Barnet’s words, which in turn animate the faces of Cuban actors Luz María Collazo, Sergio Corrieri, Salvador Wood, José Gallardo and French actor Jean Bouise. Actress Raquel Revuelta’s voice speaks for Cuba and painter René Portocarrero designed the costumes and poster. The stage designer was Roberto García York, who fled to Paris the year the film made its debut.

Pineda Barnet, who directed other important Cuban films like La bella del Alhambra, believes that Soy Cuba has been marked by politics. “I think its rating is the result of the current times, politics,” he wrote in a short emailed response to questions by El Nuevo Herald. It was the political differences in the 1960s between the Soviets and the Cubans, he added, that determined the film’s brief life in theaters. Politics also encouraged the movie’s image as controversial.

The film no doubt has a propaganda overtone. But once that’s overcome, it is outnumbered by the film’s many merits.

“Because it was a communist production, it was never shown in Western countries and was forgotten until Cuban writer Guillermo Cabrera Infante organized a retrospective on Kalatozov and included Soy Cuba among the films shown,” said Vivian Martell. It was shown at the 1992 Telluride Film Festival in Colorado, opening the way for its justified resurrection.

The version shown at the O Cinema will be in Spanish with English subtitles.