A Film For March: I Am Cuba

Made in 1964 this collaboration between the Russian director Mikhail Kalatozov, the writer Enrique Pineda Barnet and the poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, I Am Cuba is set during the last days of Batista’s government and the Cuban Revolution in 1959. Told through four allegorical vignettes, this is clearly propaganda for Castro but with Raquel Revuetta as the voice of Cuba there is a dreamlike almost hallucinogenic feel to the film as the camera swoops and dives from buildings to sugar fields that makes it as absorbing as it is beautiful.

Opening with tranquil images of fertile land and palm trees we move to the city for the first story about Maria (Luz Maria Collazo), a young women making ends meet by working as a prostitute in one of the many bars. The American businessman who buys her company asks to see where she lives and after the glamour of the casino he finds himself lost and disoriented among the slums of Havana as he tries to make his way back to his hotel.

from Life Magazine 1954

From the city to the country for the second story, where Pedro (José Gallardo) is harvesting his sugar crop. As he chops with the help of his children, the landowner rides up and tells him that the land has been sold to United Fruit and they must leave immediately, With one line they have lost their home and livelihood.

The third story is led by Enrique (Raúl García) a student who leads a rebellion against Batista’s regime and the final story is about Mariano (Salvador Wood) a farmer who wants peace for his young family but as they come under attack he joins the rebels in the Sierra Mountains which leads to a triumphal march in Havana.

I don’t want to sound flippant about these stories, although they aren’t character studies I felt completely engaged with each one. The tension created was often palpable and the story of the students and their suppression, was particularly harrowing.

But what makes this film great is the cinematography by Sergey Uruservsky. I’ve seen the camerawork referred to as ‘acrobatic fireworks’ and without giving to much away I can say that the way the camera floats amongst the sugar cane, as Pedro chops it down and then to see it swirling with the flames and billows of smoke as it catches fire; as pamphlets and the bodies of students dive from tall buildings it’s as if its choreographed. Shot in black and white, the use of the colours is incredible. Using infrared film that exaggerates the contrast, the white of trees and sugar cane especially, burns with intensity against very dark skies. It is propaganda, but it’s also art, and, I thought, really worth watching.

“Don’t avert your eyes. Look! I am Cuba. For you, I am the casino, the bar, hotels and brothels. But the hands of these children and old people are also me” — Yevgeni Yevtushenko

12 thoughts on “A Film For March: I Am Cuba

  1. Such a fascinating country, Cuba – the only place where Communism sort of worked. The film sounds as if it really captures the revolutionary spirit – what makes people finally decide that they’ve had enough.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. We have Netflix as it came with our phone ‘deal’ but I’ve been resisting getting Amazon or other pay television subscriptions, although the day is probably coming… especially as we often went to the cinema pre-Covid and I don’t think we’ll be going again for some time.
        When I see your film reviews I’m tempted, though.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. It is tricky with all the different streaming services, we stopped Amazon for a while because in general we try not to use them but found we really missed it!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I have a very distant memory of seeing this film in my youth, and the haunting cinematography you mention here is the element that has stayed with me. It sounds like the type of film that would be ripe for a re-release – seeing it in a cinema would be quite the experience!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Seeing it on the big screen would be fantastic, all the diving camera work would be incredible – who do you think we have to talk to?!


  3. This one sounds good! I visited Cuba some years ago and found it such an interesting place. Also I got a very different impression when going there, compared to the impression gained from the media. Would love to watch a film from there.

    Liked by 1 person

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