Ranking: #59/111

Director: Mikhail Kalatozov (Georgia/Soviet)       

Genre: Poetic Political Drama

I am Cuba represents poetic cinema at its best. It is also a most unusual political drama. Highly experimental in nature, the film gives voice to the country and to land of Cuba as the nation faced the Castro-led revolution that would change its destiny. Like The Naked Island, it’s a masterpiece of socially aware cinema presented in a poetic style. Cuba is portrayed as a land stripped bare, an exposed land, a hurting land overburdened with memories of oppression.

In a co-production between the then Soviet Union and Cuba, Mikhail Kalatozov has created a series of vignettes which depict the consumer society which is evolving in Cuba, while under the surface of its fake prosperity an unstoppable social and political revolution is brewing. The film takes the viewer on a cinematic journey into the heart of Cuba at a revolutionary time in its history.

Blending different narratives together, which illustrate insights into Cuba’s history and its present, the main character remains Cuba itself. The black-and-white photography is used to give the film a realistic newsy feel for its depictions of poverty and political tension in the country. Stylistically, Kalatozov pulls off an amazing balancing act between the substructure of realism and his upper layer of poetic imagery.  

The opening sequences are unique in cinema history. As Cuba is given voice, in a voice-over narration, the camera pans over the island, sometimes using extreme wide-angle shots. There are some extraordinary images of a bleached-looking landscape, covered in whitish palm trees and fields of pale, almost ghostly, sugar cane, a cinematic metaphor for an abused country “bleached” of its peace and joy. We realise immediately that this is a society in pain. It is a land which has been exploited, which is yearning to be free. These memorable images were created by using infrared filmstock from the Soviet military. The imagery alternates between bleached and whitewashed, normal black-and-white and blurred, dream-like sequences, as if the film is attempting to capture the very soul of the country: its history, its memories and its pain of the heart.

There are four narrative strands, or sub-plots, skilfully interwoven with all these fascinating images of Cuba and its society.

The first story involves a casino bar prostitute, Maria, and an American tourist who wants her to take him to where she lives, which is a shanty-town outside Havana. The glitzy casino and its night life contrast starkly with the destitution visible in every street of the ramshackle township where she lives. Her boyfriend is a fruit-seller called Rene, and, sadly, he’s unaware she’s leading a double life as a prostitute. The next morning Maria’s client pays her the money for the sex she sold to him, and he callously takes her crucifix necklace. There is clearly a contradiction between her real values, her aspirations to marry Rene one day, and the humiliating position she is in as a prostitute. Maria is very unhappy and the grinding poverty in which she, and her people, live has trapped them at the bottom of society’s “food chain”.

The second story is equally poignant. A sugar farmer, Pedro, has his biggest ever crop. But then his landlord, Mr Acosta, rides onto the farm, as he is harvesting, and informs him that the farmland and its farmhouse have been sold to a company called United Fruit. Pedro and his family are given notice to leave immediately “Your home isn’t yours anymore.”. It is a crushing, devastating blow. In one moment, Pedro has lost everything.  It is Acosta who has all the power – the farmer is powerless, without any rights. Knowing it’s all over for him, he lies to his children and gives them his money so they can go into town and have a fun day. Then he goes into a frenzy, burning everything down, including the sugar cane that was sold from under him. He dies of smoke inhalation in a hellish, apparent suicide. These scenes are apocalyptic. The royal palms have been watered by blood and by tears. The land of Cuba, once again, is suffering. We hear its cries.

The third story focuses on a student leader, Enrique, at Havana University who is part of a growing rebellion against the state. At one point, he saves a young woman called Gloria from sexual assault by a group of arrogant young US sailors.

Enrique has run out of patience with what he perceives to be incremental, insignificant and ineffective protests against the Cuban government. He then plans to carry out a radical political act: assassinating the chief of police. However, when the police chief is in the sights of his rifle, Enrique sees him interacting with his young children, and he cannot bring himself to shoot him. Then, back on campus, he leads a student protest. The police break it up. When the demonstration turns into a riot, he is shot. Then his fellow students carry his body through the streets, a martyr to the cause of revolution now sweeping through the nation.

In the final vignette, a farmer in the highlands, Mariano, does not want to join the revolutionary militia hiding out in the mountains, as he wants to look after his wife and children. However, government planes begin bombing the area he farms and his home is destroyed. His son killed, too, in the air raid. Mariano decides to join the rebels in their mountain stronghold in the Sierra Maestra range. The rebels succeed in marching on Havana to proclaim their revolution.

It took a miracle of editing to blend these four stories, as well as a spectacular collection of images of Cuba and its society and people, into one whole film, united by the “soul” of the country itself.

What I love most about I am Cuba, apart from its depth of insight and humanity, is that it makes a bold statement about cinema being a powerful new form of the visual arts, a medium which can capture not just the photographed exterior of a place, but its very soul, too. Imagery in motion is everything in this movie, captured by a highly agile camera itself in constant motion. You get the sense of watching history in real time.

What a portrait of Cuba! What a triumph of film art!