‘I am Cuba’ shows off stunning visuals

We open from a helicopter’s view, rolling past the ocean as white-crested waves crash into the thick jungle coast. Native sounds of bongos and primitive flutes drone in the background. We are meanwhile being introduced to the narrator and subject of the film simultaneously as the opening words say, “I am Cuba.”

The female voice then goes into detail describing Columbus’ first glorious impression of the country and its beauty. Since then, the narrator tells us, “ships have taken my sugar and left me with tears.”

“I am Cuba” is a joint production of the USSR and Cuba as an anti-American propaganda film. While the subject of the film – Cuba’s demise and the hopeful rise of Fidel Castro to save the country – is dated with our hindsight bias, the technical achievement is astounding.

In an early scene, we are taken to a fashion show on a high rooftop. The camera therein becomes a fly-on-the-wall that the people sometimes notice but mostly ignore. The lens becomes our eyes, traveling from one location to the next (underwater, cascading over buildings, gazing toward the sky), all while we wonder how they accomplished this in 1964.

In another scene, we are taken to a Cuban nightclub/brothel where American sexists harass the poor women, going so far as throwing them around like rag dolls. This is the first, but far from the last, glaring example of Cubans desperately trying to cling to their culture without being taken over by the greedy, heathen capitalists.

Russian director Mikheil Kalatozishvili was coming off of the Palme d’Or winner “The Cranes are Flying” when he made “I am Cuba.” His film grapples with the visually compelling high art genre and political message film. However, these two elements rarely find balance and seem to counter each other.

Four stories essentially hold this film together in depicting the rise of the revolution in Cuba. Between each story, the narrator (which is Cuba herself) makes poignant remarks about the state of the country. “Isn’t this a happy picture? Don’t avert your eyes. Look!”

In watching this film, Kalatozishvili seems to take bits and pieces from the best filmmakers to create this visual masterpiece. If Frederico Fellini or Ingmar Bergman were directing a neo-realist Italian film, “I am Cuba” would likely be it.

In one scene, students are staging a protest in the rise of the revolution. As they march forward down the fleeting steps, we are taken back to Sergei Eisenstein’s “Battleship Potemkin” or Leni Reifenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will.”

With a dead dove in hand, the resistance approaches the police only to be greeted by fire hoses and gunshots – a powerful statement and scene.

Made in 1964 and co-produced by Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorcese, “I am Cuba” is visually compelling but topically dated.

However, never before (and not likely after) have we seen a film with its subject, narrator, title and main character as the same.