‘I Am Cuba,’ a Soviet technical marvel

However you feel about the politics of a pro-Castro drama funded by the Soviets screening on Portland State campus, you owe it to yourself to see I Am Cuba.

In 1964, the United Soviet States of Russia recruited Russian cinematographer Mikhail Kalatozov to direct a film about pre-revolutionary Cuba’s struggles in order to bolster socialist morale in both countries. I Am Cuba is an anthology film full of breathtaking speeches about the fight for freedom and the necessity of a government that works for its people, not the other way around.

Kalatozov utilizes every cinematographic technique in the book, including many that weren’t widely used at the time, to capture sweeping vistas, claustrophobic nightclubs and massive marches through city streets.

Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola oversaw a restoration, rendering every frame in crisp detail. The film uses an archaic predecessor to the Steadicam for its many tracking shots, including one gorgeous set piece that takes the audience up the side of a building through an open-air factory and out over the city.

The film may not have you leaving the theater with a completely changed outlook on the time period, but it’s nevertheless easy to get swept up in the raw emotions on display. The shots of young men and women getting drenched by fire hoses outside a courthouse bear a certainly unintentional but powerful similarity to images from the American Civil Rights Movement, while the scenes of debauched dance parties filled with sexist Americans have a sense of disdain so thick you could cut it with a knife.

These scenes take on an uncomfortable relevance in America’s current political climate, even if it was entirely unintentional on Kalatozov’s part.

Unfortunately, the audio did not completely survive the restoration. Many conversations drop out halfway through, and most of Cuba’s scenes are devoid of foley work (background noise) to fill long, silent periods. That said, the silence can lend an eerie atmosphere to the film, reminding audiences that this is an artifact from a lost time, and that we’re lucky to be able to see it at all. If you’re going to see one propaganda film this year, skip the multitudes of flag-waving military action films that Hollywood pumps out and go see I Am Cuba. You won’t regret it.

I Am Cuba screens Jan. 26–28 at 5th Avenue Cinema. Admission is $4–5, or free with a PSU ID. For more information, visit 5thavecinema.com.