Baila el Twist

Hallowed Cold-War relic displayed, vividly remembered, at Film Forum

How like a comet is “I Am Cuba”? Born in the obscure fastness of the cosmos, a comet is a mass of dust and ice that follows a regular yet eccentric orbit, stirring awe in earthbound mortals with its fiery streak and demise in prophecy-laden meteor showers.

Conceived in the depths of the Cold War under the sign of the Cuban missile crisis, “I Am Cuba” hurtles back into view at the Film Forum from September 16–29 in a gleaming new 35mm rendition, a decade after its initial run there and trailing much the same gaseous tail of fanfare.

Practical need actually begat “I Am Cuba,” originating as part of a technology transfer to the nascent Cuban film institute ICAIC (Instituto Cubano del Arte e Industria Cinematograficos), founded just three months after the 1959 revolution, from its new Eastern bloc allies, including Czechoslovakia, East Germany, and the Soviet Mosfilm studios. Director Mikhail Kalatozov and cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky, primed by their artistic triumphs with the dark World War II romance “The Cranes are Flying” (1957) and the mesmerizing, elusive “Letter Never Sent” (1959), leapt at the opportunity to ply their special brand of kinesthetic delirium on an epic tropical canvas. While the two-year-long production tried the Cubans’ patience, it fulfilled the goal of downloading the technical expertise of one of the world’s great film cultures to the novice Cuban crew, with the Soviets leaving their equipment behind in the bargain.

“I Am Cuba” also tries a viewer’s patience. The baggy, didactic scenario depicts the process of coming to revolutionary consciousness across four sketches of Cuba on the eve of insurrection, joined by passages of orotund voiceover. Cubans’ former oppression under the U.S. puppet Fulgencio Batista is established through the first two segments, of the beautiful mulata María, impelled by poverty to betray her guileless swain through prostitution with odious Yankee businessmen; and a sharecropper who, upon learning of his land’s takeover by the United Fruit Company, sends his kids to town where they frolic and chug Coca-Cola while he incinerates his sugarcane fields. Things liven up in part three with a reenactment of an actual student revolt at the University of Havana, but by the time chapter four’s archetypal noble peasant has taken up with the guerrillas in the Sierra Madre, the viewer is more likely enervated than energized.

True to its origins as a prototype, the film’s lasting value and fascination lie in its celebrated technical virtuosity. Indie distributor Milestone Film’s creamy new print does justice to Urusevsky’s innovative use of infrared-sensitive negative stock to achieve a stunning range of silvery monochrome contrasts, and camera operator Alexander Calzatti’s balletic maneuvering of a handheld Eclair. If the visual rewards of “I Am Cuba” don’t quite compensate for its longueurs, its best sequences—not only the ostentatious money shots but also carefully modulated scenes such as the exposure of María’s defilement—are truly unforgettable.

At the end of the day, however, “I Am Cuba” belongs with that rare company of cinematic colossi, including “Barry Lyndon” (1975), “New York, New York” (1977), and “Heaven’s Gate” (1980), that are more wonderful to have seen than they are to watch.

An instant bomb, Cuban audiences found the film’s cultural naiveté and highfalutin airs off-putting and a trifle embarrassing. But from the very outset “I Am Cuba” was a case study of mutual incomprehensibility, as revealed in the engrossing companion documentary “I Am Cuba: The Siberian Mammoth,” screening concurrently at Film Forum. This adoring cinephile testament by the young Brazilian director Vicente Ferraz chronicles the long, strange adventure of making “I Am Cuba,” while cogently glossing its cultural history. The unique Soviet co-production, for example, is usefully framed within the larger invasion of international cineastes who stormed Cuba to witness the revolution in progress—including Jean-Luc Godard, Agnès Varda, Chris Marker, and Joris Ivens, in addition to filmmakers from throughout the rest of Latin America.

Anchored in expansive interviews with the film’s key participants, “I Am Cuba” ’s co-screenwriter Enrique Pineda Barnet and ICAIC’s founding director Alfredo Guevara emerge as the warm, dual-chambered heart of “Siberian Mammoth.” The urbane Pineda Barnet humorously recounts his vaguely defined role, embroidering the Russian team’s simplistic fables with culturally correct “informative elements” and serving as all-round artistic emissary. He was clearly a sporting interviewee, indulging Ferraz in a hammy reenactment that dissolves from a contemporary shot of the writer to the rebel student leader of “I Am Cuba”—also named Enrique—strolling along Havana’s Malecón sea wall.

By contrast, the owlish Guevara is the consummate public intellectual—bemused, perspicacious, rhetorically forceful, and when necessary, expertly diplomatic. Finessing the Russians’ obvious cluelessness, he remarks, “They had no fixed ideas.” Pineda Barnet might steal “Siberian Mammoth” with his slouchy, avuncular charm, but Guevara is mantled with unparalleled firsthand experience of Cuban cinema, having led ICAIC from its founding to 1981, then again in the convulsive “special period” of the 1990s. Ferraz also gives Guevara the acerbic last word: “Today the fact that others have rediscovered [“I Am Cuba”] fascinates me. But it also makes me reflect—when the film was a necessary support, it was ignored; now that it’s an archaeological piece, it is reclaimed.”

“Siberian Mammoth” has its shortcomings, some youthful overstatements, and self-regarding indiscretions. When Ferraz arranges a reunion between Pineda Barnet and “Sacha” Calzatti near the end, for instance, he’s not above showing them thanking him on camera for the occasion. Yet in revisiting the heady early 60s, Ferraz remains firmly grounded in the besetting hardships of the present, indexed with a brief scene of impoverished Cuban balseros (rafters) launching their handmade vessel to cross the 90 miles to the U.S.

And while it admirably avoids cockeyed nostalgia, “Siberian Mammoth” perhaps goes its namesake one better by approximating the mood of revolutionary euphoria that, ironically, is absent from “I Am Cuba.” For its brief, potent reminder of this singular euphoria—the exhilarating sense of enlarged, attainable possibilities for social change—you shouldn’t miss this fine documentary.

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