Rookie Judge Daryl Loomis received and smoked an entire case of Montecristos while writing this review.
In 1962, the Soviet Union sent their top writers and filmmakers into the fledgling nation of Cuba to create a film that would demonstrate the beauty and importance of their revolution. While it was meant to inspire both Cubans and Soviets alike, the resulting I Am Cuba, a work of astonishing beauty and style, was much more than either audience bargained for. After being labeled formalist and poor propaganda, the Soviet government promptly shelved the film. Forty years later, championed by Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, it rose from the ashes. In the mid '90s, it was finally shown in America and drew immediate acclaim for its cinematic artistry and innovation. Milestone's three-disc release is a pretty package, but does it fall for the same formalist trappings of the film, or is there substance amongst all this style?
Facts of the Case
Director Mikhail Kalatozov (The Cranes Are Flying) and cowriters Enrique Pineda Barnet and Yevgeny Yevtusheko intended to create an epic poem to celebrate the Cuban Revolution. As much as they succeeded, the resulting narrative is secondary to the film's poetic imagery. This thin, Communist Party-line story is told in four loosely connected segments.
The first is an indictment of Batista's regime and the stain Americans have left on the country. Told through the eyes of Betty, this young Cuban woman is forced into prostitution to keep her dilapidated shack upright. The second tells of the effect capitalism has on Cuban workers. A hard working cane farmer would rather burn his crop and everything he owns than sell out to the corporation. Next, we find ourselves inside the growing student movement. The motivations for the revolution and the methods of organizing are more fully realized here and we learn of the life and death of a favorite son. Finally, the revolution has come and the struggle is on. The glory of Castro rises and his student army takes control of Cuba in the name of utopian Communism and beyond.
As a political film, I Am Cuba is little more than a historical relic. It is interesting to see the Soviet view of the Cuban Revolution, especially since the movie was filmed just after the Bay of Pigs. That the Castro regime is, as of this writing, still in power makes most of the narrative outdated and amusingly quaint. In that way, it doesn't play much different than any number of Soviet propaganda movies. What sets I Am Cuba apart from all but the best of its comrades is the filmmakers' insistence on telling the story visually, which resulted in some of the most amazing images ever committed to celluloid. Unfortunately, this very thing caused all its trouble. For all their efforts to make a stylish and subtle film, the attention to beauty drew focus away from the hard line Communist message. Both governments found the movie off topic and unacceptable for the movement, which caused the film's disappearance for almost forty years.
Given I Am Cuba's history, it's a wonder the film could be restored at all. Credit goes to Milestone for presenting such a surprisingly good-looking picture. While some dust and decay is present, it is amazing how clean the film looks. Sergei Urusevsky's cinematography is done real justice with this new full-frame transfer. The centerpiece of the film, the use of unthinkably complex tracking shots, is where this really shines. These slow, extended scenes are crisp and the details of the city and the sea are a feast for the eyes. Some of the most beautiful sequences are shot in ultra-high contrast infrared process; the bright whites and inky blacks are both deep and beautiful.
The mono soundtrack is not as impressive, however. While both the dialog and music are clear enough through the single channel, there is nothing special here. Since there is not a lot of dialog, Carlos Fariña's music is very important to the mood. Given the purported importance of this release, it would have been nice if a more dynamic sound mix had been presented. Milestone's packaging for I Am Cuba: The Ultimate Edition is nice looking, if a little excessive. Within its cigar box case are three separate discs. The first contains the film, a 26-minute interview (read: lecture) with Martin Scorsese discussing the importance of the film, the Cuban title sequence, a trailer, and a photo gallery. The second disc is a feature length documentary "The Siberian Mammoth," which tells the story of the production and its negative reception. The final disc is a second documentary, "A Film about Mikhail Kalatozov" and is about…well, you can guess what this is about. Both documentaries are interesting and give proper context to the feature. It seems like they could have put everything on two discs in a more efficient package, but the three slim cases do fill the box.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
While the style of I Am Cuba is everything it's cracked up to be and the mostly amateur cast lends a sense of realism, the narrative is just not very good. The politics are hamfisted and, while the imagery may be subtle, the dialog is anything but. The overwrought, melodramatic propaganda gets pretty tiresome after 140 minutes. On top of that, the dubbing, sometimes English but mostly Spanish, is horrible. It's some of the worst I've ever heard…and I'm an Italian horror fan. I don't speak Spanish, but could clearly tell that the voice was sounding a full second before the lips moved. Worse yet is the Russian language soundtrack, which keeps the Spanish audio but plays a Russian translation over it. It gets confusing fast. I've never heard this method of dubbing before, and I hope I never do again.
In his interview, Scorsese wonders how today's films would have been different if I Am Cuba had been available to the world forty years ago. I can't help but think he's right. In the short time since its rediscovery, it has had an immediate effect on filmmakers, from Scorsese to Paul Thomas Anderson (who borrowed a scene directly for Boogie Nights) and beyond. I Am Cuba is justifiably regarded as one of the stylistic highlights of film history and, now that it is widely available, should serve as a benchmark for aspiring cinematographers.
I Am Cuba is a beautiful film and, while guilty of style over substance, is entirely free to go. The governments of Cuba and, posthumously, the Soviet Union, are guilty of the suppression of this phenomenal piece of art. Both are sentenced to a thousand viewings of Red Dawn, to learn what properly bad propaganda is all about.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Milestone Films
• Bonus Feature: The Siberian Mammoth
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