I made a discovery a couple of weeks ago from which I am still reeling with surprise and elation. It was Mikhail Kalatozov’s 1964 film, I Am Cuba (Soy Cuba), made as the world recovered from the Bay of Pigs crisis and the United States learned to accept the presence of a Communist state just beyond its borders.
I had had some meagre knowledge of Cuban cinema from Alea’s 1968 Memories of Underdevelopment, in which a member of the Europeanized elite is as disenchanted with the hedonism of the Batista years as he is disappointed by the ignorance of the newly enfranchised island populace. It was a candid portrait of the new society coming to terms with itself, in which the implied criticism of the regime by the central character was counterbalanced by implied condemnation of him, a far from sympathetic abuser of a young actress’s innocence. He was played there by Sergio Corrieri, who in I Am Cuba portrays the figure of the intellectual guerrilla leader, like Yacif Saadi in Battle of Algiers, a film with which it bears some comparison.
I was prepared to expect some kind of propaganda piece tinged with exotica, both by stills of the film and an awareness of it as a Soviet/Cuban co-production, with the former partner doubtless eager to justify this new people’s revolution. How unprepared was I, therefore, for the poetry and direct emotional appeal of Kalatozov’s treatment of the material, or for the cinematic virtuosity of its execution, a feature for which I now read the film is renowned, at times all the more to condemn it as an empty piece of agitprop.
The film divides into four stories, each devoted to an inhabitant of the island, but first there is a prologue, in which we are introduced to Cuba as a paradise unequalled (so said Columbus) via the voice of our disembodied narrator, which is the island herself (played by a woman, as it happens). We see, in images of antediluvian innocence, a man rowing his boat upstream through simple village dwellings, and already the director is nailing his colours to the mast in visual terms: this is a camera that will rove, swoop, veer and examine in close-up, thanks to black and white, plentiful existing light and wide-angle lenses, as if to hold at bay any unwanted comparisons with Eisenstein’s techniques of montage.
Almost without noticing, we find ourselves in the playboy paradise of pre-revolutionary Havana, familiar to filmgoers from the likes of The Godfather Part Two, the haunt of big business and organized crime, as the camera sidles past bikini-clad beauties sipping poolside drinks, their generous curves amplified by the wide-angled lens. And then we are in a nightclub with a group of European men on the lookout for company, and there begins the story of María, a dancehall hostess adored by a street fruit seller but forced by poverty to go by another name at night. In due course she takes home the quietest member of the group (Jean Bouise, an actor rediscovered by Luc Besson), a journey which involves stepping gingerly over stones to avoid wet feet, her shanty town dwelling’s precarious nature emphasized by canted angles. Throughout, María’s face is a blank, numbed indifference bordering on moroseness, an expression more than matched by that of her lover when he discovers the truth.
The second story, that of a tenant farmer forced to destroy his sugar cane by the callousness of his landlord, is a classic tale of capitalist exploitation of worker indigence, but it is even more heartrending than the foregoing, thanks to the performance of the actor and the beauty of the landscape he torches rather than leave to his evictor.
So much for injustice; now for the measures adopted to counter it. Story number three tells of an idealistic student whose belief in uncompromising violence as a response to violence meets its own impasse when he is unable to assassinate the chief of police. The centrepiece of this episode is the sequence in which the students conclude a rally on the palace steps by carrying a white dove down amongst the people and marching through the city streets (incredible overhead track from a balcony to down the centre of the street), only to be met with water cannon and bullets. The imagery here is overtly Potemkin-like with its track down the steps, use of God’s creatures as commentary, and citizenry transfigured by implacable fire.
Any other film would stop there, but this one goes on to examine a peasant farmer’s life in the mountains. What need has he of revolution? Why, to secure education for his children, and medical care for his wife, and an indiscriminate bombing by Batista’s air force drives the point home: there is no escape from taking sides in this type of conflict, as there is but a few years later for the protagonist of Memorias. And the regime makes itself one more victim, and one more enemy.
Kalatozov’s film, which I have no hesitation in describing as a masterpiece, shies away from depicting the ‘comeuppance’ of its imperialist ‘scum’, much as it martyrs its representatives of salt-of-the-earth workers. However, in depicting also the urban student intellectual middle class, which is the driving force of the revolution but also its future traducer, it leaves a doorway open to Alea’s more jaundiced vision of a qualified victory. In short, politics and art rarely looked more persuasive.