Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Soy Cuba (I Am Cuba) (1964)

Seen: On dvd on our projector set-up, rented from the Tisch Library at Tufts.

So this semester (my very last semester of graduate school, hurray!) I'm taking a class on Latin American art during the Cold War, and it is fascinating. Most excitingly, I get to do a research paper on Cuban movie posters, oh my goodness, you have to know how gleeful that makes me. We watched Soy Cuba last week, and the script and on-set translator Pavel Grushko came and gave a talk about his experiences, which was very interesting. The film was a Soviet-Cuban co-production, but ultimately amounted to a Soviet representation of the Cuban revolution, tracking the nation's extreme disparity of decadence and poverty in the 1950s, and revealing the cruelty of both American capitalists and Fulgencio Batista's dictatorship. It is broken up into four major episodes, with the final story focusing on the guerrilla uprising led by Fidel Castro that ultimately took over the country. The film was shelved for years in Cuba because it was felt to be too epic and unrealistic, while in the USSR much of it was considered too sentimental and frivolous. It was rediscovered and released in the US by Martin Scorsese in the 90s, and is today considered significant primarily for its mind-boggling visuals courtesy of cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky.

Fusing propagandistic revolutionary rhetoric with sumptuous views of Cuba, Soy Cuba remains a fascinating testament to the differences between Soviet and Cuban ideologies, as well as a significant technical achievement. It is at once beautiful, sentimental, unreal, poetic, manipulative, and moving. The loose, episodic narrative structure allows the filmmakers to provide a multi-faceted view of Cuba and its inhabitants—its ethnic diversity, its natural resources, and its suffering and sacrifices in the period leading up to and during the revolution. Cuba is shown as a victim of American capitalism and hedonism, a nation that pulls itself out of Western colonial entrapment through inspiring, epic struggle (an exaggerated portrayal of the actual circumstances). It is not subtle in its propagandistic message, but it is also not untrue in its presentation of Battista's corruption and violent repression.

The film’s variations in tone can be jarring, shifting from loud dance clubs to quiet shantytowns, from toil in the sugar cane fields to university student protests; its manipulative qualities are easily uncovered but its range of characters can still be appreciated. The Cuban cast (primarily pulled off the street by director Mikhail Kalatozov's casting director wife) is excellent, with the standout being dancer Luz María Collazo as an unwilling sex worker. Her hard stare and determined expression manage to turn a mostly-silent woman into a more fully-realized character. The poetic segues between segments felt unnecessary, revealing a lack of trust in the effective visual storytelling, and adding a layer of mawkishness. Ultimately Soy Cuba’s strengths (and longevity) lie in its jaw-dropping visuals: the innovative long takes, sweeping camerawork, grand vistas, and symbolic imagery. But, its message of self-empowerment and rebellion against tyrannical leadership is one still recognized today, even if the context has changed.


Pair This Movie With: I'm really not sure, I haven't seen any other Cuban films and I haven't even seen too many other propaganda films. Perhaps another offering from the director/cinematographer team? Pavel Grushko talked up The Cranes Are Flying. Or there's also a documentary about the making of Soy Cuba that I'd like to check out, called I am Cuba, the Siberian Mammoth.


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