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I Am Cuba

Image Entertainment

Written by Enrique Pineda Barnet and Yevgeni Yevtushenko
Directed by Mikhail Kalatozov

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Review by Gregory P. Dorr                    

Martinis. Mambos. Swimming pools and sunglasses. Parties and palm trees. This is the Cuba of I Am Cuba. A swinging, pre-Castro, 24-hour nightclub, where the Americans come for a little exotic fun. The women strut in bikini fashion shows, or take in the sun beside the luxurious hotel pool. The men leer with desire, which they satisfy with dark, native working girls eager for a taste of capitalist reward.

This is the Cuba of I Am Cuba. Or is it? One wealthy tourist decides to play amateur anthropologist with his moody prostitute companion. He insists they consummate their transaction at her place. She takes him out of the city and into the shanties. He's surprised by the squalor, but not discouraged. He's also amused by the large crucifix this wayward girl wears around her neck. He asks her to wear it while they have sex. She refuses. Later, he buys it from her, as a souvenir.

As he leaves the next morning, he is mobbed by starving children desperate for money.

I Am Cuba is exactly what it sounds like: pure Communist propaganda. Its loose narrative of four thinly interwoven stories has the unmistakably narrow purpose of decrying the corrupt decadence of the U.S.-backed Batista era and glorifying the noble left-wing rebels who raged bravely against the government, eventually overthrowing the system and beginning Fidel Castro's 40-plus-year leadership of the island country.

I Am Cuba is propaganda, but it is beautiful, stunning propaganda, with images so bold and potent they fill the movie's naive political statements with incredible power and emotion.

Directed by Russian auteur Mikhail Kalatozov in a fever of cinematic gusto, I Am Cuba marries the physical lyricism of Leni Reifenstahl's 1938 Nazi tribute Olympia with the dazzling visual invention of Fellini and the audacity of Orson Welles. Although the script by Cuban novelist Enrique Pineda Barnet and Soviet poet Yevgeni Yevtushenko gets triple-service — spoken by the actors in English and Spanish, subtitled in English, and then somewhat distractingly reiterated by a Russian narrator who repeats every spoken word — the star of this show is cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky. His deep, high contrast images are consistently breathtaking for nearly the whole 140 minutes.

The amateur cast, too, is excellent, breathing empathetic life into essentially shallow, message-serving characters, from prostitutes, to sugar farmers, to revolutionaries. But, again, it is Urusevsky's magical camera that transforms these stick figures first into people, and then into indelible icons for the cause, but without shedding their humanity. It's a miraculous trick, and one that turns a possibly tedious polemic into a great (albeit misguided) treasure. A must for all film lovers and commie pinkos.

This 1964 movie went virtually unheard of until 1995, when it was discovered by Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, who then presented its small theatrical run. It's possibly the most beautifully photographed black-and-white film ever.

Despite some inevitable wear from age, I Am Cuba is nonetheless gorgeous in this 1.33:1 transfer. There is only one audio track, in Dolby 2.0 mono Spanish, Russian, and some English, and optional English subtitles. Trailer, snap case.

— Gregory P. Dorr

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