Propaganda cinema never looked as beautiful as the dazzling, poetic and delirious Soy Cuba (I Am Cuba), by Russian director Mikhail Kalatozov. Made in 1964, the film fell into obscurity until the mid-1990s, when it was rediscovered as a masterpiece. The rescue operation has been further aided by Brazilian director Vicente Ferraz’s documentary I Am Cuba, the Siberian Mammoth(2005), which is opening in London alongside the original.
The film starts with an arresting aerial shot of the island to establish the location and present a vision of tropical exuberance. A female voice-over, rich in pathos and lament, introduces itself as Cuba. This personification of a place is the first ideological strategy of the film. Still during the opening shot we are shown scenes of poverty in paradise, which looks inconsistent with the beauty of the land.
Episodic in construction, Soy Cuba was written by the poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko and the novelist Enrique Pinedo Barnet. The first section after the overture is arguably the best: it starts with a miraculous tracking showing a swimming pool party at the top of a hotel, a symbol of pre-Castro decadence. It goes down from the terrace to the swimming pool area, finally diving into the water to show the slithering bodies of swimmers. This is followed by another sequence in a bar that looks like a fantasy mondo-exotica tiki bar where a group of cartoonish Americans parties like rich white-trash versions of Frank Sinatra. Here a favourite Communist metaphor of capitalism is introduced: prostitution. A beautiful, innocent and symbolically virgin Cuban girl called Maria is forced to sell her body to the Yankees to whom she introduces herself as Betty. There! Even her name has to be changed to please the clients, imperialist thieves of cultural identity.
The second segment shows the suffering of a sugar cane farmer who loses everything when the landowner announces he has sold his property to an international fruit company. The graphic beauty of the sugar plant blades provides a slightly surreal tapestry against the sunny sky dotted with sparse white clouds.
Soy Cuba gets more Soviet in the third segment, which shows the struggle of the student rebels in Havana. At this point it drums up the propaganda, blaming the country’s foes squarely on general Batista and his army of fat pistolleros. Change is imminent, we feel and anticipate. With a strong influence from Russian formalism, the sequence reaches an apotheotic montage climax when the protagonist of the sequence is murdered by the police. This sequence also includes another unbelievable tracking: the camera moves across a room at the top of a building, goes through the window and carries on as if it’s flying over the road where a procession is carrying the body of the hero. The result is pure visual ecstasy.
The final segment is the preachiest one and illustrates the conversion to the cause of a family of peasants, led by the appropriately named Mariano. Mariano is visited by a hungry rebel, who he welcomes and feeds. But he gets upset when the armed man starts with his revolutionary spiel. A few moments later, Mariano’s house is destroyed by the bombs dropped by an airplane and he decides to join the guerrilla in the jungle.
With anti-American sentiment raging across the globe, and quite often accompanied by a discourse that is not too dissimilar from the ideological programme fostered in Soy Cuba (which, despite its cunning simplicity, does contain some essential truths about imperialism and globalisation), this is a must-see film. The set pieces alone justify sitting through Soy Cuba, which stirs similar emotions to The Battleship Potemkim (1925).
Soy Cuba (I Am Cuba) plays at the ICA in London between 13 and 26 January.