Blu-Ray Review | I Am Cuba | 1964

Courtesy of The Criterion Collection.

In the wake of the missile crisis, Soviet filmmaker Mikhail Kalatozov went to Cuba to make a film examining life in the tiny island nation that had defied the American empire. In the wake of the revolution, Cuba did not have a strong cinematic tradition from which to draw inspiration, and filmmakers of all kinds were called in to help develop a uniquely Cuban cinematic language. 

I Am Cuba, however, was released during a time of tension between Cuba and the Soviet Union. Whilst revolutionary fervor had cooled in the more established USSR, the young Cuban government led by Fidel Castro favored a more aggressive expansion of socialism through violent revolution. As a result, Kalatozov's film received a somewhat muted response when it was released in the Soviet Union, and was likewise dismissed by many Cuban critics who preferred a more realistic brand of revolutionary cinema. 

Interestingly, leftist critics mostly ignored the film upon its release according to critic Juan Antonio García Borrero's essay included in this release's liner notes, because I Am Cuba is one of the most extraordinary pieces of revolutionary propaganda ever produced, as vibrant and vital as anything the Soviets released during the silent era. While its heart is a lyrical paean to the revolutionary spirit that gave rise to Castro's communist takeover, it is also a thrilling verité look at the lives of the Cuban people prior to the revolution. The film is divided into four vignettes that illustrate the struggle of the proletariat in which a young woman is forced into prostitution unbeknownst to her lover, a farmer burns his crop of sugarcane after being evicted by the wealthy landowner, a group of young students plot the assassination of the local police chief, and a rural peasant trades in his pitchfork for a rifle to join the revolution.

Kalatozov's camera is free-flowing, switching seamlessly between up close and personal handheld shots that puts the audience right in the middle of a student uprising, to soaring crane shots that sweep across an impromptu funeral procession, through a cigar factory, and out over the crowd, as if it has been liberated from the confines of its earthly bounds. It is clear that Kalatozov fell in love with Cuba, as the revolutionary fervor of the young nation invigorated his filmmaking. I Am Cuba stands tall alongside Eisenstein's Strike (1925), Pudovkin's Mother (1926), Ermler's Fragment of an Empire (1929), and Kalatozov's own Salt for Svanetia (1930) as one of the great works of Soviet revolutionary cinema. By framing the film from the point of view of the island itself, Kalatozov creates an unforgettable ode to the revolutionary spirit, something that feels especially timely right now, as student protests against the genocide in Gaza draw the focus of mealy-mouthed Western politicians and journalists bent on preserving the neoliberal capitalist order. I Am Cuba offers a ray of hope that a better world is possible, that the struggle for justice is not in vain, and that the arc of human suffering bends toward liberation. 

This release marks first collaboration between the Criterion Collection and Milestone Film. Milestone has long been dedicated to releasing long unavailable masterpieces such as Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep, Billy Woodbury's Bless Their Little Hearts, and Lionel Rogosin's On the Bowery. Not shown in the United States until a screening at the Telluride Film Festival in 1992, and gaining support from such cinematic luminaries as Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, I Am Cuba's release on 4K and Blu-Ray is a triumph, a breathtaking presentation of a visually ravishing work whose rediscovery here feels like a minor miracle.

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)

I AM CUBA | Directed by Mikhail Kalatozov | Stars Sergio Corrieri, Salvador Wood, José Gallardo, Raúl García, Luz María Collazo, Jean Bouise, Alberto Morgan | In Spanish w/English subtitles | Now available on 4K UHD and Blu-Ray from The Criterion Collection.


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