Revolution on the screen, on the ground in 'I Am Cuba'

From 1964, a time when the world seemed ready to accommodate 33 revolutions per minute, the film "I Am Cuba" boasts some single-take shots so boggling, the following phrases showed up in my notebook: "How did they do that? A three-story-high tracking shot above a revolutionary martyr's funeral parade?!?" And: "Camera travels down the outside of the building, then noses in on Western scum drinking Bacardi by the pool, and then into the water!"

Fervent propaganda as well as pure cinematic kineticism, the movie is built upon long, single-take feats of astonishment. These days, few filmmakers of any ideological stripe take the time to map out what used to be considered an essential visual partnership between the moving camera and the bodies and objects sharing the frame. "I Am Cuba" reminds us of how satisfying that dance can be.

The film is a flowing fever dream of Communist revolution, a Cuban-Russian co-production unavailable generally until 1995. Milestone Films had the support of Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola on the restoration of this picture. But the crucial heroics behind "I Am Cuba" belong to the three who marched at the front of an audacious project — modeled on "The Battleship Potemkin," though its visual dynamism owes as much to Orson Welles as it does to Sergei Eisenstein — that couldn't, shouldn't, wouldn't have worked without them.

The heroes are director Mikhail Kalatozov, best known worldwide for "The Cranes Are Flying"; cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky; and camera operator Alexander Calzatti, a student of Eisenstein's cinematographer on "Potemkin." The director worked from a script following four loosely connected episodes dramatizing Cuban life during and then after the Batista regime.

The segments are very crudely drawn in terms of dialectics: At one point in the final episode, a peasant farmer discusses the worth of life with one of Castro's guerrilla fighters, before the bombs start dropping and another revolutionary (the timid farmer) is born. The script was put together by Yevgeny Yevtushenko and Enrique Pineda Barnet and, at various junctures, the nation of Cuba herself (voiced by Raquel Revuelta) draws attention to both her famous Havana nightclubs and the slums away from tourists' eyes.

It's a unique document of its time, but more than anything "I Am Cuba" is a remarkable exemplar of the moving image. How many filmmakers likely owe this picture something, starting with Coppola and Scorsese, and including Steven Soderbergh and Terrence Malick? When the sugar cane farmer sets his fields on fire in response to his landowner's news of having sold out to a Western fruit company, the combination of flame, smoke, wind and precious resources, captured in pearly black and white, goes beyond propaganda and lands somewhere near poetry.

"I Am Cuba" will be presented twice this week at the Gene Siskel Film Center as part of its "Revolution in the Air" film and lecture series.

mjphillips@tribune.com

'I Am Cuba'
No MPAA rating
.
Running time: 2:21; in Spanish and Russian with English subtitles.
Plays: 6 p.m. Friday and 6 p.m. Tuesday, Siskel Film Center.

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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