III . II . XXI
Cuba Threaded Through Revolution
My-FLIX by Ridhi Chhabra
‘Soy Cuba’ or ‘I am Cuba’ is a film by Soviet director Mikhail Kalatozov, (a winner of the Palme d'Or at the 1958 Cannes Film Festival). This film was made in 1964, it weaves four short stories outlining the sufferings of Cubans under Batista's overthrown regime. The film is particularly remembered for the way it shows the inevitability of the Marxist overthrow of the Capitalist state. Moreover, the dazzling beauty of monochrome cinematography by Sergei Urusevsky is something that is studied in film schools but is almost impossible to replicate.
It is the visual verse essayed by the filmmaker that makes it so powerful. The spellbinding crane shots for its time and can even turn contemporary cinema to dust particles in a giffy. The close-up and extreme wide-angle are so well tied together in a single take that it is worthy to mention again and again whenever this film is talked about. It is interesting to know that 'Soy Cuba' was initially rejected by both Cuban and Soviet officials and went largely disregarded for over 30 years!
Shot much before the days of lightweight cameras and steadicams, the film traverses the viewer along to witness the greatness of Cuba with exceedingly long takes and breath-stopping imagery. The deliberate juxtaposition of rooftop poolside party and a village submerged in water at the very beginning of the film with that narrator explaining what is Cuba prepares the audience for the two hour long cinematic tour. Director Mikhail Kalatozov follows the multitude of faces of revolution with Afro-Cuban music complementing the brilliant narrative.
The film was originally designed to have five related scenes, but eventually made it to four discrete stories. In the first one, an American businessmen spends the night with a prostitute, causing dismay to the girl’s lover - a Cuban fruit seller. The American finds his way out of the shanty village only after colliding with the poverty stricken kids over a prolonged montage. The second one follows a farmer who recalls how he was evicted from his cane field after being duped by a US Company. His deep despair resonates with the audience as he sets fire to the field. Next up, a student revolutionary plans to shoot the fascist police chief but after seeing him with his kids, he drops the gun.
Later, he leads a student demonstration on the steps of Havana University in a scene of 'realism' that echoes the massacre at Odessa steps in Sergie Eisenstien’s iconic Soviet silent film Battleship Potemkin. He is shot by a policeman after the demonstration becomes a riot. In another magnificent long take, famously known as ‘Soy Cuba Funeral scene’ - his body is carried through the streets as he is now a martyr to his cause. In the final story, a peasant rejects the requests of a revolutionary soldier to join the ongoing war as he wishes nothing more than to live in peace. Soon after, his village is bombed by Batista's air force, killing his son. He then joins the rebel army moving towards the triumph of the revolution.
It is no surprise that the villains of the story are the Capitalists and the heroes are peasants, slum dwellers and students. However, it is the visual poetry essayed by the filmmaker that makes it more powerful. It has spellbinding crane shots for its time and can even turn contemporary cinema to dust. The close-up and extreme wide angle are so well tied together in a single take that it is worthy to mention again and again whenever this film is talked about.
It is interesting to know that Soy Cuba was initially rejected by both Cuban and Soviet officials and went largely disregarded for over 30 years. It was American directors like Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola who began a campaign to restore the film in the early 1990s. Soy Cuba is available to the public on YouTube in 4K resolution.
Ridhi Chhabra is an alumnus of the Film and Television Institute of India - FTII , a cinema enthusiast, painter and a visual storyteller. She is the 3rd generation journalist coming from a media/journalists family based in New Delhi, INDIA.