The power of I Am Cuba as a piece of pure cinema is two-fold. The director, Mikhail Kalatozov, needed to make a film in the same urgency of the present tense with a country, to 'document' as it were the wave that Cuba was riding with its revolution. It was an exciting, dangerous, uncertain but promising time, and whichever side could agree that the country had changed forever. Like Eisenstein, one part of the impact is for Kalatozov to present fragments of the country of Cuba to the whole world, something that proclaims loudly, proudly what the country strived for an possibly won.
But there's another part, maybe a more crucial one than the given propagandistic side of it, to take the art of film-making to breathless invention and surprise and passion, breaking the boundaries of the early 1960s via Eclair cameras. Perhaps instinctively Kalatozov, Urusevsky and his screenwriter knew that there had to be something else to the picture to make it stand out from typical propaganda, of the same beat of the drum. It takes so much courage to take the simplicity of message or rhetoric and to film it as if the subjects are documentary but the form is complete fever dream and heightened hyper-reality.
I Am Cuba will remain a document of a time and place and aspirations of a people. But long after Castro dies or the Cuba of his uprising fades or changes to a different political denomination (if it hasn't already), it will be a great piece of film-making, one of the towering examples of taking the tools of the art- light, hand-held cameras, tracking shots, cranes, natural light and filters and the distinct lenses- and applying them like almost no other film like it at the time. The most wonderful thing to keep in mind about this filmmaker is that he's a poet and technical revolutionary first, communist sympathizer second.
Some may disagree with the message, and they're not without reasons. Though it's hard to disagree on how much Kalatozov and his crew get done with seemingly so limitless a budget. So many scenes and sequences stand out as triumphs of control of the mis-en-scene, masterpieces of preparation and blocking out the scene and creating unforgettable figures with the locals. The scene early on at the hotel with the camera moving around from person to person and dropping down and then tracking into the swimming pool is the most famous example. Lest not forget transcendent shots like the nightclub tracking of the singing or simple shots like the farmer working the sugar cane happily at first, the camera gliding through the field and the canes, and then the fury of the technique mirroring the farmer's breakdown following being told his farm and home are no longer his (the actor, or non-actor as it probably was, is incredible here).
Or the student, Enrique, who sees the hears a man singing a song as he enters a hotel to commit an assassination of a political figure, only to have the song come back into him, haunting his consciousness while he aims miles away. Another that could be analyzed in a master's film class, just one shot, is on the crowd in the street for the funeral of the boy, as the camera goes along on the roof then through the room of workers and finally gliding off the roof looking down on the crowd. Did I mention how awesome they use things like waves of smoke or camera tilting or just masses of bodies walking through muddy waters with rifles in hand? There's more and more I could go on about, but it might spoil some of the surprises in store.
Is it, perhaps, a God-like or other-worldly presence Kalatazov means to have on I Am Cuba? Surely the narrative voice transforms it/herself into the very nature of cinematic expression at most times, an alive point of view. Above the political and national reason for the film to exist, which is a strong one, is as a testament of physicality, of atmosphere of a city or farm or slum or hotel or mountain, of the joys and horrors and sorrow that are in all people. The film is about Cuba and its people and political upheaval, but it is also about human nature, survival, adaptation to circumstances, love. And all of these themes and ideas are important as the subject matter, and this might already make it a must-see. But for anyone, any student of film or person looking to the past for possibilities of movies in the future, it is required viewing.
It may have come to the United States and other parts of the world too late in an influential respect (think how rich the 1970s might have been if it had been released in 1964), but it's not too late to influence others, and it still does. Its significance with regard to film style is comparable to Citizen Kane - mesmerizing is the only word for it.