When Soviet director Mikhail Kalatozov was commissioned to make a film about the Cuban Revolution, he set out to make a Battleship Potemkin for the Cuban people. The film he made instead, I Am Cuba (1964), was a hallucinatory, freewheeling work of communist kitsch, a pastiche of Soviet and Cuban symbolism that tried to combine camp and revolution; a sprawling story whose narratives never quite run together, all shot with a gravity-defying, always-on-the-move, “emotional” camera; a cinephile’s wet dream, the film about which Werner Herzog once said anyone who hadn’t seen it didn’t deserve to be a cinematographer. Or, that’s part of the myth surrounding the film, anyway, which also says that I Am Cuba, the first Soviet-Cuban coproduction, was hated by both countries upon its release (by the Soviets for being too artsy, and by the Cubans for being inauthentic). It remained in obscurity for nearly 30 years until it was rediscovered by the Americans, the kings of kitsch. Most recently, the new restoration by Milestone Films of this movie that is at least nominally about Cuba, brings up questions of authenticity once again.
I Am Cuba tells the story of the Cuban Revolution through the lives of several Cuban people: Maria, a young woman who works at a Havana nightclub that caters to rich Americans, who is forced to entertain and sleep with tourists for money; Pedro, a tenant farmer whose sugarcane fields are taken from him after the landowner decides to sell the plot to a U.S. company; Enrique, a young revolutionary and university student who’s part of the intellectual resistance; and Mariano, a peasant who’s moved to take up arms and join the rebel army after a government bomb kills his son. Over all of this, the voice of Cuba — narrated by Raquel Revuelta — carries the story to its conclusion: the triumph of the revolution, which is where the film ends.
It’s worth watching I Am Cuba for the cinematography alone. In one sequence, the camera follows Enrique’s funeral procession through the streets of Havana when, suddenly, the camera lifts off the ground, travels up the side of a building, through a window, across a room full of men rolling cigars, out another window, and returns once again to the funeral procession below as it sails over the street — all in a single shot. Even in the age of drone photography, it’s hard to imagine how this was pulled off. (According to the press kit, the filmmakers used a makeshift elevator and planks, passing the handheld camera between two cameramen in a carefully choreographed sequence, ultimately attaching it to two cables to guide it over the street for the final part of the shot.)
The soundtrack is as impressive. Music, especially early on in the film, carries the viewer through its different spaces: the nightclub singer’s ecstatic performance of “Loco Amor” being one memorable example, and the fruit vendor’s melodic call of oranges and California plums being another. Plus, there’s the velvety voice of the narrator reading impressionistic lines (the script was written by two poets, one Russian and one Cuban), that knits these spaces together.
In these respects, the new restoration really is a revelation. The close-ups feel almost invasively close in 4K. The music and limited dialogue are goosebump-inducingly intimate. For those of us who’ve watched previous versions of I Am Cuba — which, for me, have included a version with the somewhat bizarre Spanish-Russian soundtrack (the voiceover repeated in both languages, one after the other, which was part of the original Milestone release), as well as pixelated versions on laptop screens — it’s tempting to say this version combines the best of image and sound.
Restoration is always bound up with ideas about authenticity. Milestone Films gained distribution rights to I Am Cuba back in the mid-1990s, before which the film was virtually unseen outside of Cuba and the USSR. Since then, Milestone has re-released the film one other time, in 2005. The 2005 version had the Spanish-only soundtrack, but the image still showed splotches, bad splices, and, most noticeably, a flicker throughout the film due to lab work. These were the issues they sought to correct with the new restoration, releasing what will now be considered the authoritative version of the film.
Cuba itself is a place that attracts projections of authenticity, frequently imagined as a land “locked in time,” with its mid-century automobiles, pastel-colored peeling buildings, and other symbols that serve as shorthands for fetishized pastness. When Milestone released I Am Cuba in 2005, they overtly employed these symbols, packaging the DVD in a container designed to look like a decorative Cuban cigar box, making kitschiness part of the marketing and enjoyment of the film in yet another way. On the other hand, I Am Cuba has real documentary value, and its connections to Cuba go beyond mere symbolism; the latest restoration was, after all, undertaken because a documentary filmmaker wanted to use footage from it in a documentary about Havana. Just as with any film, it’s uncanny to see familiar locations displaced through time and space into the remote fictional world of I Am Cuba; when Enrique races to the roof of the building with the intent of shooting the police officer, for instance, I’m always struck by the fact that I’ve looked onto that staircase many times before, standing across the street at a window of an apartment near the Malecón. I Am Cuba is an ode to a place that never existed and yet one that continues to exist. The Cuba it depicts may be an imagined one, but it’s one we’re continuing to imagine today.
I Am Cuba plays at Film Forum (209 W Houston St, Manhattan, New York, 10014) through February 21st.
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