‘I Am Cuba’ – an intoxicating revolution on Criterion Channel

Poetry meets propaganda in I Am Cuba (Cuba, 1964), Mikhail Kalatozov’s delirious tribute to the Cuban revolution.

Ostensibly a collaboration between Russian and Cuban artists, this cinematically audacious and visually extravagant film is a political tract gone native. Kalatozov, director of the Cannes winner The Cranes Are Flying (1957) saw the film as his opportunity to create his own Battleship Potemkin reimagined for the Cuban struggle against Batista. What emerged 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. It’s a film lost in the faces and the tropical landscape of Cuba as reimagined by a Russian filmmaker intoxicated by the Caribbean culture and music.

Think of it as a cinematic socialist symphony in four movements. The four stories that make up the film ostensibly chart to road to revolution through portraits of poverty and colonial decadence that keeps the Cuban citizens prisoners of injustice until they embark on revolution, but it’s the thrilling beauty and primal imagery that you remember. The camera is almost perpetually in motion—set on a canoe drifting down a small canal, hefted to wander streets and weave through crowds in handheld sequences, lifted by cranes, suspended by wires, even transported several stories in an elevator—and the shots play out in long, unbroken takes lasting as long as ten minutes. More than just dramatic and dynamic, they are thrilling images, pulsing with life and passion, pounding with indignation and anger, soaring with the spirit of idealism in action.

The form is undeniably European; the Cuban style of the 1960s belonged more to the magic realism of Cinema Novo and the low-budget ingenuity of the French New Wave. The culture clash of Soviet paternalism and aesthetics and Cuban stories and settings makes the film a not just a fascinating document but a delirious cinematic odyssey.

It was not, however, embraced in 1965. It was derided in Cuba, dismissed in Russian, and all but suppressed by both countries. They filed it away and forget about it, until it was rediscovered and revived for a tribute to director Mikhail Kalatozov at the 1992 Telluride Film Festival, which marked the film’s American debut. In 1995, three decades after it was buried by Cuba and the Soviet Union, I Am Cuba was restored and (under the banner “Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese present”) released to theaters around the world, where it was received with rapturous reviews and was recognized as a masterpiece of world cinema.

The National Society of Film Critics gave the film its archival award in 1996.

Black and white, in Spanish with English subtitles.

Also on Blu-ray and DVD and on SVOD through Amazon Video and/or other services. Availability may vary by service.
I Am Cuba (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]
I Am Cuba (The Criterion Collection) [4K UHD+Blu-ray]
I Am Cuba: The Ultimate Collection (Milestone) [DVD]
I Am Cuba (Milestone) [DVD]

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The Criterion Collection releases include the 2004 documentary I Am Cuba: The Siberian Mammoth on the making of the film, a 2003 interview with Martin Scorsese, and an appreciation by cinematographer Bradford Young, plus a foldout insert with an essay.

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Sean Axmaker is a Seattle film critic and writer. He writes the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website, and his work appears at RogerEbert.com, Turner Classic Movies online, The Film Noir Foundation, and Parallax View.

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