Thursday, December 29, 2011

The casino, the brothels, the beggars, the rebels: notes on I am Cuba

A recent conversation with a non-Indian acquaintance who was seeking recommendations for “definitive” Indian movies – “the ones that best capture the ethos of the country” – had me thinking: is it possible for a filmmaker to convey everything important about a place in a two-hour feature? Well, the short and honest answer is no, of course, but if you attempt it you might look at a country that is on the cusp of a historically vital moment – and then you might turn for inspiration to the 1964 film I am Cuba.

Made by the Russian director Mikhail Kalatozov as a celebration of the Castro-led revolution (and of socialism in general), this is a tremendous visual essay on a place and a zeitgeist, and a classic example of no-holds-barred, avant-garde filmmaking. Formally speaking, it’s one of the most inventive movies I’ve seen, right from the lengthy opening shot, a stunning aerial view of the coastline and a forest of palm trees. (Martin Scorsese even proposed that movie history might have been different if I am Cuba – which was out of circulation for decades and only recently restored – had been widely seen by filmmakers and film students 45 years ago.)

Less interesting is the film’s ideology, including its relatively uncomplicated view of revolution and change, oppressors and victims. The narrative is made up of four vignettes: a sweet girl named Maria works as a prostitute-escort for crass Americans at a nightclub (where she uses the more modern name Betty); an old farmer, Pedro, destroys his carefully cultivated sugarcane crop when he learns that his land is to be sold to capitalists; youngsters in Havana lead demonstrations against the Batista regime; and another farmer, initially a peace-monger, joins the rebels in the mountains when his home is destroyed. (This last episode reminded me strongly of Ingmar Bergman’s film Shame, one of the most effective depictions I’ve seen of sudden violence changing people who want nothing more than to lead anonymous lives. Like the apolitical musicians in that film, the farmer Mariano wants to live in peace, he doesn’t want to go to war – but the war comes to him anyway.)

I didn’t think any of these stories set out to be particularly nuanced. For instance, the Maria/Betty episode is an allegory of Cuba as the Virgin (Maria) despoiled by capitalist tourists, and the Americans are portrayed as caricatures with hyper-exaggerated accents (but then again, who can tell, given the types of rich Havana lifestyles being depicted here). It’s simultaneously repelling and amusing when a big dumb Yank drawls “All men are created equal” and starts drawing lots to divide the girls up among his friends. (Nothing is indecent in Cuba if you have the dough, he says, though Maria briefly tries to defy these words by refusing to sell her crucifix to a souvenir-collector.)

A face of the country that is hidden from these revellers comes into view when the setting shifts from the posh nightclub to Maria’s rundown shack in a slum area. Her client – looking most incongruous in his white suit – tries to escape this hellhole of poverty in the morning, but finds himself mobbed by bands of little children begging for money. As he stumbles about in confusion, the segment-closing voiceover begins. “I am Cuba,” it goes, “Why are you running away?”
You came to have fun. Isn’t this a happy picture? For you, I am the casino, the bar, hotels and brothels. But the hands of these children and old people are also me.
The sentiments expressed here and elsewhere might appeal to someone with a polarised view of the world where Che Guevera stands proudly in one corner while America and Capitalism glower in the other. But a more discerning viewer might also wonder if this elegantly filmed sequence with its mobile, handheld camera doesn’t amount to poverty porn – the sort that made so many people uneasy when they encountered it in Slumdog Millionnaire.

Throughout I am Cuba, pedantic ideas mix with gorgeous imagery, but thankfully there is much more of the latter. The stock words overused by reviewers to describe a beautifully shot movie – “poetic”, “hallucinatory”, “hypnotic” – are entirely appropriate for this one. Nearly every scene is heavily stylised. The camera never stops moving, there are visual flourishes and a playfulness – a willingness to push technique as far as possible – that I always associate with the best work of Orson Welles (Citizen Kane of course, but also Touch of Evil, The Magnificent Ambersons, F for Fake and Othello).

Like those films, this is a highly self-conscious work. Kalatozov and his cameraman Sergei Urusevsky use canted angles, very long takes, wide-angle shots that appear to stretch the landscape, and unusual lighting effects that draw attention to themselves (in the first scene I could barely recognise the palm trees for what they were because they were made to look unnaturally pale). There are so many lovely sights and sounds. The melodic chant of a young fruit-seller, and the close-up of his betrayed face when he realises his girlfriend has traded on her virtue. A hypnotic (yes, that word again!) vision of a revolutionary in a maelstrom of smoke and hosed water, his face appearing to dissolve as he falls towards the wet ground (with the camera looking up at him). The apocalyptic scene of the old farmer setting fire to his crop, with the moon appearing to recede as he looks up at it. Shadows of falling pamphlets, like little angels of grace gliding above the characters. If a movie has to err on the side of “too much style”, this is the way to do it.

In the film's best scenes, though, the technical showing off is integral to the narrative. A breathtaking sequence of a martyr’s funeral procession – with the camera climbing upwards and sideways, past buildings, and then floating in the air above the parade – has a heady, liberating quality completely suited to what is being depicted; it has the effect of bringing us closer to the heart of the revolution and to the people in their balconies, cheering the rebels on. Another enduring image towards the end is that of the weary but exhilarated faces of arrested rebels. When asked for the whereabouts of their leader, they chant “I am Fidel” in turn (it’s like a version of “I am Spartacus”), and the way the scene is orchestrated, “Fidel” comes to stand for something much more than a single individual – it’s the ideal that makes everything worthwhile for these people.

At moments like these the film transcends its narrow doctrine and becomes a much more universal document of the human spirit. Whether it tells us everything we need to know about Cuba is of course another question entirely.

P.S. One of the most narcissistic things a reviewer can do is to quote himself, but well: in this post about Michael Powell’s 49th Parallel, I mentioned that propaganda often doesn’t gel with dynamic, imaginative filmmaking; that movies made with the chief aim of educating or rousing an audience will usually emphasise content over form. When I wrote that, I definitely wasn’t thinking about I am Cuba. If you see it, do yourself the favour of not seeing it on a small computer screen. And try to find a version where Russian dubbing doesn’t overlap with the original Spanish voice-track. (The one I saw has both playing at the same time, which is distracting, even though the film doesn’t have much fast-paced conversation.)

P.P.S. Here’s an old post about a great documentary – Nanook of the North – that provided an idealised (and partly manufactured) view of a particular people. And a post about another visually striking propaganda film – Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will – is here.


  1. His other film "The Cranes are flying" also contains at least two or three of the most amazing tracking sequences ever, much like the opening sequence in this film. An extremely powerful film!

  2. "Whether it tells us everything we need to know about Cuba is of course another question entirely."

    I lost you there-like I do while reading the Economics papers of my professors. You started by stating that the film might be what could pass for an all encompassing view of a film that "best capture the ethos of the country", then elaborated on what you feel about it, and why you feel so, and then ended up with the quoted text. Does it mean that this film should be seen not only because it "best capture the ethos of the country" but also because there are other elements of aesthetic excellence in it?

    Also, if your acquaintance asked you about "“definitive” Indian movies", why would you suggest a Cuban movie, made by a Russian? (I mean unless you wanted some Bombay girl who went to Podar International School to send you a sms which seemed something like :P or :-/)

  3. if your acquaintance asked you about "“definitive” Indian movies", why would you suggest a Cuban movie, made by a Russian?

    Um, I didn't. I simply used that conversation as a starting point for this post about I am Cuba.

    You started by stating that the film might be what could pass for an all encompassing view of a film that "best capture the ethos of the country"

    "Might be what could pass" being the key part of the above sentence. As I clearly said in that first para, it definitely isn't possible for a 2-hour film to capture everything about a place. But if such an attempt has to be made, I am Cuba is a good model to aspire to.

    Does it mean that this film should be seen not only because it "best capture the ethos of the country" but also because there are other elements of aesthetic excellence in it?

    Again, as stated in the post, the biggest reason to see this film is the aesthetic excellence. And the best scenes are the ones where the aesthetic sensibility helps illuminate the narrative.

  4. But propaganda and high stylisation has often gone hand-in-hand: think of the Russians. Or Godard's Dziga Vertov Group. Or, closer home, Mrinal Sen (in his Calcutta trilogy). These are not stray exceptions.

  5. Sudipto: true. Guess I was thinking of the sorts of propaganda films I have mainly been exposed to (and I haven't seen all that many). On some level I still think of the genre as represented by those public service things we used to see on Doordarshan in the 1980s!

  6. "I didn’t think any of these stories set out to be particularly nuanced"

    Nuance has always been a casualty of extreme right or left-wing filmmaking. Think of the Battle of Algiers: astonishingly persuasive, yet clearly tilting towards one side. Or so many of modern cinema's building blocks - Battleship Potemkin, Triumph of the will, Birth of a Nation - all shining an extremely bright light on one side of the story.

  7. a fan apart: The Battle of Algiers is not straight-out propaganda in any case. To me, it's a humanist document coloured with anti-colonial ideology. Pontecorvo answered allegations of left-wing didactism with the observation that the melancholic tune that he used in scenes of death is the same for both FLN rebels and the French. The bombings carried out by FLN are never glorified. The director sided morally with the rebels but he was not justifying violence.

    Jai: Haha, I know. Even now the word "documentary" - leave aside "propaganda" - mentally conjures up Doordarshan's Issued-In-Public-Interest shorts.

  8. Sudipto: I've heard that argument before, and while I agree that Pontecorvo's film is less black-and-white than I Am Cuba, i think it might be slightly specious to attribute a even-handed outlook to The Battle of Algiers simply because it has the same tune in the background in both instances. I feel it's quite plain which side the director's heart beats for.

  9. A fan apart: It depends on viewer's position as well. For someone who is convinced that French were colonial occupiers in Algeria and were upto no good, it doesn't feel like propaganda at all.

  10. Sudipto, Uday, Harry Lime: I need to watch Battle of Algiers properly. Made a dutiful attempt to see the whole thing when it showed on Star TV in the mid-90s (the Hundred Years of Cinema marathon) but I knew practically nothing about the historical context and quickly lost interest. But I'm in a phase now where this kind of cinema holds much attraction, so should revisit it.