Politics, propaganda and poetry are whipped into an exotic cinematic cocktail in Mikhail Kalatozov’s delirious tribute to the Cuban revolution, I Am Cuba. The film, a co-production between the USSR’s Mosfilm and Cuba’s national film production company, ICAIC, was embarked upon as a gesture of solidarity in the wake of the Cuban Missile crisis. Castro, a film buff who loved both Hollywood movie and the great Soviet classics of the silent era, saw an opportunity to put Cuba’s story on film. Kalatozov (director of The Cranes Are Flying) saw the film as his opportunity to create his own Battleship Potemkin, but for the Cuban struggle against Batista. What he emerged with is an epic revolutionary art movie of socialist ideals that opens in the decadence of Batista’s Cuba and ends with the intoxication of righteous uprising against the capitalist oppressors.
I’ve had the pleasure of revisiting one of the best DVD releases of 2007 (and one of the greatest film rediscoveries of the 1990s) for Turner Classic Movies: I Am Cuba.
“We saw the film as a kind of poem, as a poetic narrative,” explained cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky in a 1965 interview. Urusevsky, who had previously shot Kalatozov’s The Cranes Are Flying, and Soviet poet Yevgeni Yevtushenko joined director Kalatozov in a tour of Cuba to scout locations, soak up the culture, and get to know the people in order to find their story. Cuban poet Enrique Pineda Barnet was their screenwriter partner and tour guide. He helped sketch out ideas and characters with the three Soviet artists in group meetings in Cuba and then traveled to Moscow to help write the script from the notes and scene sketches. Pre-production reportedly took over a year as Kalatozov worked out every aspect of the film, and the shooting lasted almost two years.
The resulting portrait, ostensibly a collaboration between Soviet and Cuban artists, is undeniably European, the work of Russian filmmakers intoxicated by the Caribbean culture and music and set loose away from the oversight of Soviet studios and politicians. The Cuban style of the time belonged more to the magic realism of Cinema Novo and the low-budget ingenuity of the French New Wave than the delirious imagery and acrobatic camerawork of Kalatozov and Urusevsky. In Vicente Ferraz’s The Siberian Mammoth, a 2005 documentary that charts the making of I Am Cuba from a Cuban perspective, the Cuban actors and crew members are generous with praise for Kalatozov and his Soviet crew, but they make it clear that the Cuba on screen is exoticized and eroticized by filmmakers from cold Mother Russia. While they confess that they were often awed by the images and the thrilling cinematic sequences created by Kalatozov and Urusevsky, they shake their heads at the way the Soviets would wait three days for clouds to drift into the sky for one shot, or completely redirect a waterfall so that the sun would appear just so in the falling spray for another shot. The obsessive perfectionism seemed excessive, to say the least, to the practical folks used to making films on tiny budgets and down-and-dirty conditions.
This culture clash of Soviet paternalism and aesthetics and Cuban stories and settings helped transform I Am Cuba into something unique to this day: a fever dream of Soviet idealism, a political tract gone native, social realism on a bender. It was a flop when it was finally premiered in 1965, derided in Cuba (even by the locals who worked on the film), dismissed in Russia, and all but suppressed by both countries when they filed it away in the vaults after a brief run. Who knows how long it would have remained forgotten if not for a screening at the Telluride Film Festival as part of a tribute to director Mikhail Kalatozov in 1992. It was the film’s American debut and, even without subtitles, was embraced by Telluride’s cinephile audiences. Milestone Films acquired the rights and, under the banner “Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese present,” released the film to American audiences in 1995, where it’s more popular than it ever was in either the Soviet Union or Cuba.
You can read the entire piece here.
Also new on TCM are a trio of pieces on featured films running on the channel.
Kundun (Martin Scorsese, 1997)
“Compassion and love are the only way to go,” says Scorsese in the documentary In Search of Kundun with Martin Scorsese. “The other way is violence.” Kundun is surely the most gentle and meditative of Scorsese’s films, a placid biography with the scope of an epic, the quality of a storybook, and the dramatic stakes of a tragedy. Scorsese observes the odyssey through the eyes of the boy treated almost like a king when he’s taken from his rural family home to be raised and taught by Buddhist monks to take his place as the spiritual leader of Tibet. Those early scenes recall The Last Emperor (1987), and not just for its visual splendor and rich color, painted in austere images of glowing golden yellows and deep reds. It’s a portrait of a child learning the scope of his power while his elders try to instill in him modesty and reflection.
Scorsese never shows violent conflict except through the newsreels, as if it all comes from another world, but he shows us that the Dalia Lama knows well the danger that faces him and his followers from Chairman Mao and Communist China. In one dream, blood pours into a fish pond, in another the bodies of hundreds of monks lay slaughtered at his feet, the camera pulling back to reveal untold numbers that will surely die in any armed confrontation. The unmistakable cyclical compositions of Philip Glass’ score (which at times brings to mind the memorable music he wrote for Koyaanisqatsi, 1982) results in a chant-like backdrop to the drama and to the introspective direction. Glass’s use of throat singers also adds a strange and beautiful human quality to the rumbling bass.
Contact (Robert Zemeckis, 1997)
Carl Sagan, best known to the general public as the host and co-writer of the PBS science series Cosmos, was one of the most effective spokesmen for the advancement of science and space exploration in the world. He had been intimately and passionately involved in the search for intelligent life in the universe and in the SETI project. The novel Contact was, in many ways, an illustration of his beliefs and a fictional format in which to debate his humanist take on science and religion. He was intimately involved in the screen adaptation of the novel and production of the film, determined to keep science and discovery a central part of the film, even though he had been diagnosed with cancer and was dying when Zemeckis came on board.
Robert Zemeckis was more focused on the earth-bound drama of the film’s heroine, Dr. Eleanor Arroway (Jodie Foster), a young, passionate scientist devoted to searching for signs of intelligent life in the universe. She battles the derision of powerful members of the scientific community (notably the President’s Science Advisor, played by Tom Skerritt), as well as the assaults of religion, military mindset, and problems of women scientists in a world dominated by men (numerous women scientists were invited to share their experiences and their thoughts on the portrayal of Arroway in the script before production began). Zemeckis and Sagan argued passionately over the script, and together they condensed the original novel, which sprawled many years and featured hundreds of characters, into a story centered around Arroway and the odyssey that begins when she receives a radio signal from the Vega system, over 50 light years away. It starts out simple, a series of pulses representing prime numbers (“the language of science”), and soon reveals a far more complex series of messages in companion signals. As the discovery spreads across the globe, the American government steps in and she fights yet another battle to continue her work and to maintain the integrity of the project.
Se7en (David Fincher, 1995)
The city is an unidentified, vaguely drawn cesspool of an urban metropolis that is perpetually gray and wet. The crime is a serial killing spree that, upon investigation, proves to be so meticulously planned and executed that the term “spree” no longer applies. The title, Seven (1995, also spelled Se7en), refers to the seven deadly sins that inspire and define the murders. And the killer, who appropriates the name John Doe, treats his sadistic assault on society’s “guilty” sinners like a calling, a modern campaign from a man reviving the work of an Old Testament God passing judgment in a soiled, corrupt world in need of a cleansing. Or at least a good kick to its complacency.
Written by Andrew Kevin Walker and directed by music video and commercial veteran David Fincher, Seven is a meticulously crafted film about the most meticulous serial killer since Hannibal Lecter, an insane genius who draws his inspiration from the classics: Dante, Milton, Chaucer, and in one scene, Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. In addition to the deadly sins – gluttony, greed, sloth, greed, etc. – the title plays on the seven-day countdown of veteran Detective Lieutenant William Somerset (Morgan Freeman) before his retirement. Somerset is smart, classically educated, and observant, a once passionate policeman who has been worn down by the horrors he’s witnessed on the job. You can see the toll it has taken in his eyes and his deliberate movements in the opening scenes, as he carefully dresses for work. Always so thoughtful and poised and careful, Somerset has one quirk: he carries a switchblade. Morgan Freeman makes even his handling of the knife precise and elegant.