Cuba retrospective's bold and beautiful

I Am Cuba: The Ultimate Edition
Studio: Milestone Films
Release Date: 2007-11-29
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So we finally have I Am Cuba on DVD, but let’s face it, the movie can hardly be contained on the big screen, never mind the confines of home TV. Made in 1964, the film today belongs on an IMAX screen – or perhaps even projected onto a planetarium ceiling. OK, so IMAX booking a 43-year-old, black-and-white, subtitled, socialist-propagandizing curiosity is about as likely as Sean Hannity voting for Dennis Kucinich, but we can dream, can’t we? For now, this lavish Milestone Films release will have to do, and there’s little in it to complain about.

A totalizing account of prerevolutionary Cuba and the Castro uprising, I Am Cuba envelops the viewer like few films before or since; the filmmakers hoped to create a new cinematic language but only forged an anomalous footnote in film history. With footage captured by a customized handheld camera that seemed to defy physical laws, not to mention the prevailing technology of the time, I Am Cuba’s images are at once devastating and beautiful, the acrobatic, never-ending verses comprising an agitprop poem.

The movie has always been one of the great feathers in the cap of Milestone, and the small distributor went all out in its belated DVD release, from the supplements to the packaging. The box art is fashioned after a cigar box, and three discs plus a booklet provide in-depth analysis of the film’s production.

First, there’s the movie itself: A high-def transfer from the original 35mm fine-grain master, this edition’s enhanced subtitles are a positive improvement, providing clarity for what little dialogue is actually spoken. When I Am Cuba debuted at New York’s Film Forum 30 years after it was made, it played without subtitles, which apparently did nothing to dilute the experience. The movie is a quintessential example of dazzling wizardry prioritized over content and story. You don’t need to be Cuban or speak Spanish – most of the film crew were Russian, hot off the success of the Soviet classic The Cranes Are Flying – to understand the universal conflicts that are played out as a series of autonomous vignettes.

We open during Batista’s regime, with shots of a nightclub populated by bourgeois American tourists juxtaposed with Cuba’s lower-class laborers. A woman bridges the class gap, working miserably as a prostitute for wealthy Americans under the nose of her poor but jovial fruit-seller husband. Capitalist encroachment is given an even harsher treatment in the next segment, when a peasant farmer is steamrolled out of his land and home by a private entity; he decides to torch it. Next, we confront the activist student movement that has had enough of Batista. But when the government realizes they’ve been spreading pro-Castro propaganda, the students face certain death or imprisonment at the hands of riot squads. Finally, we see firsthand how a peaceful peasant is transformed into a gun-wielding revolutionary guerilla after his land is bombed.

No plot description could do justice to the film’s staggering visual canvas. Many films are notable for having one or two bravura long takes – The Player, Goodfellas, The Passenger – but I Am Cuba has countless. For example, there’s the crane shot that finds a rooftop rock & roll party before swooping down to a pool and into the water, and the sequence that tracks across the revolutionary workers in a cigar factory before suspending the camera apparatus two feet out the window. Director Mikhail Kalatozov and cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky shot nearly every sequence in one take, making it impossible for their labor of love to be diced apart on an editor’s whims.

The film obviously has an ideology. It’s a blueprint for a revolution, with Castro representing less a person than a state of mind, a philosophy to live and die by. This is why, as a co-production by not one but two Socialist/Communist nations, it was never shown in America until the collapse of the U.S.S.R. Milestone Films, along with Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, fervent admirers of the movie who agreed to put their names on the picture, revitalized it in 1995.

Scorsese provides a new 26-minute “introduction” to the film that makes for the best supplement in the collection. He is expectedly passionate and articulate about the subject, touching on his personal relationship to the movie and its ability to inspire future filmmakers from a technical standpoint.

The set also includes Vicente Ferraz’s informative and even amusing 2005 documentary, The Siberian Mammoth, which revisits the production of I Am Cuba and talks to many of the still-living principal figures. The only weak link is the 2006 documentary A Film About Mikhail Kalatozov, which doesn’t reveal much about the underrated director aside from gushing soundbites from his obsequious admirers intercut with film clips.

Any film that can blow Scorsese’s mind (surely not an easy thing to do) is an experience cinephiles owe themselves. This “Ultimate Edition” is the best available format to discover what will become one of your favorite movies.