Sunday, March 19, 2006

I Am Cuba


Dir: Mikhail Kalatozov (The Cranes are Flying)

Set in post-revolutionary Cuba, this joint Soviet-Cuban production is propaganda at its most beautiful, visionary and poetic. The early utopian sensibilies of the Castro regime are masterfully translated into this film, more ballet than anything else. Dialogue is sparse, the stories archetypal; but the music, and oh that camera, transmit the story so with such an artisitc sense that the viewer is swept along in the grandeur of the thing.

It takes about five minutes into this movie to recognize that you are in the presence of greatness. The opening shot, without edits and done with one camera, pans throughout decadent Havana, full of casinos and bathing beatuies. When the camera actually goes into the swimming pool, we know something different is afoot. Such long, slow shots are found throughout the film. But even in close quarters the camera is always busy, tilting from side to side and in and out in a steady disorienting motion that adds both freneticism and consistency to the film, like being on a boat bobbing steadily but strongly on the ocean currents. I have read that a long team of stage hands were placed along where the shot is to be, and the bulky camera was handed off one by one, falling slowly down hills and improbably scaling walls. The constant movement, the completely unique perspectives afforded by that movement, and the reliance on pantomime to tell the stories are all brilliant.

The narrative itself is also very interesting as an artifact of the height of communistic influence and optimism. The film highlights the plight of the Cuban people before the revolution through a series of vignettes, such as a sugar cane sharecropper kicked off the land (My God how beautifully that one is shot!), a young woman prostituting herself to American businessmen, and a student resistance movement brutalized by Batista's army. The implication of the film is that Castro will go on to create a worker's paradise; of course, the exact opposite was the truth. But it is difficult to deny the desirability of a change from the previous regime; poverty and exploitation are this film's targets and as such difficult to argue against.

If one can overlook the political consequences of the Castro regime, then there is nothing objectionable in the movie itself. And the execution is so damn good, I would be willing to overlook much in order to recommend this movie. It is truly unique and beautiful. An exquisite example of what the medium of film can accomplish.

I consider it essential.