The island of Cuba has never looked as fantastically exotic as it does in I Am Cuba (Soy Cuba), a swatch of cinematic agitprop that aspires to be the Battleship Potemkin of the Cuban Communist Revolution. Completed in 1964, during the headiest days of the romance between the Soviet Union and Cuba, this Russian-Cuban co-production is a feverish pas de deux of Eastern European soulfulness and Latin sensuality fused into an unwieldy but visually stunning burst of propaganda. Supervised by the great Russian director Mikhail Kalatozov, it suggests Eisenstein filtered through La Dolce Vita with an Afro-Cuban pulse.
I Am Cuba, which will screen through Oct. 7 on 35mm film at O Cinema Miami Beach, is structured like a social realist mural with five panels, each of which illustrates a different aspect of the revolution. After surveying the fleshpots of tourist Havana with a leering disapproval, it moves into the sugar cane fields, then returns to the city to follow the leftist student movement. From there it journeys to the country to show the bombing of the innocent peasants’ hillside dwellings. It ends in the mountains marching with Fidel Castro’s ragtag army.
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The heroes include Betty (Luz Maria Collazo), an exploited Havana bar girl who lives in a seaside shack; Pedro (Jose Gallardo), an impoverished cane cutter whose land is sold out from under him; Enrique (Raul Garcia), a militant student leader; and Alberto (Sergio Corrieri), an indefatigable freedom fighter. With their shining, idealistic faces, they are picture-postcard revolutionaries working against a government run by cigar-smoking, sour-pussed monsters.
Leading the list of enemies are the fat-cat American businessmen (including one grotesque Jewish caricature) who draw lots for the favors of Havana bar girls forced by poverty into prostitution. In one of the film’s most inflammatory scenes, American sailors singing a jingoist anthem chase a frightened young woman (Celia Rodriguez) through the city’s deserted streets.
Threaded through the screenplay, written by the Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko and the Cuban novelist Carlos Farinas, is an oratorical narration by a woman representing the anguished soul of the nation. “I thought your ships brought happiness,” she tells the ghost of Christopher Columbus. “Ships took my sugar and left me in tears.”
What makes I Am Cuba much more than a relic of Communist kitsch is Sergei Urusevky’s visionary cinematography. The film’s high-contrast black-and-white photography, which renders palm trees and sugar cane fields a searing white against an inky sky, illustrates the revolution’s explosive polarities and burning passions.
The frequent use of a distorting wide-angle lens enhances the surrealism, lending the scenes of Havana nightlife an ominous, fishbowl artificiality. In a spectacular sequence set on the deck of a luxury hotel, the camera follows bikini-clad tourists from poolside to underwater. The influence of New Wave cinema is felt in several scenes shot with a hand-held camera. In a scene that recalls Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, the camera frantically gyrates on the dance floor of a fancy nightclub.
Urusevky’s photography ennobles the revolutionaries by gazing up at them like living statues. As student revolutionaries are gassed and shot at by henchmen of the Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista, they become mythological figures advancing heroically through parting veils of smoke.
Cast: Luz Maria Collazo, Jose Gallardo, Sergio Corrieri, Mario Gonzalez Broche.
Director: Mikhail Kalatozov.
Screenwriters: Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Enrique Pineda Barnet
A Milestone Films release. Running time: 141 minutes. In Spanish, Russian and English with English subtitles. Adult themes. In Miami-Dade only: O Cinema Miami Beach.