By Klawans, Stuart
The Nation , Vol. 260, No. 11
The strangest film to be released this year, and perhaps the most exciting as well, turns out to be a thirty-year-old tribute to the Cuban revolution. Recently sprung from the archives of the former Soviet bloc by Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and Milestone Film, I Am Cuba is a work of cinematic delirium and great political ambition, of political delirium and great cinematic ambition--a fabulous beast of a movie, part white elephant and part fire-breathing dragon. Useless to say that such a film could not be made today. The point is, it shouldn't have been possible to make back then.
Co-produced by Mosfilm and the Cuban Film Institute (ICAIC), I Am Cuba went into pre-production in the latter part of 1961. Whether the planning began a few weeks or a few months after the Bay of Pigs remains a subject for research; all we know is that officials in Moscow and Havana must have been newly keen on investing in a big feature film in support of the revolution.
ICAIC, which was founded in March 1959, until then devoted its resources mainly to making newsreels and documentaries and to expanding the exhibition circuit. (Among its initiatives was the "mobile cinema"--a projector loaded onto the back of a Soviet truck, sent to roam the villages.) Feature, film production would not take hold decisively, until 1966, with Tomas Gutierrez Alea's of a Bureaucrat; so for ICAIC in 1961 the project of making a 140-minute fiction was extraordinary. The subsequent evolution of the project into an art film would be flat-out inexplicable, were it not for two factors: the context of Havana itself, and the personality of Fidel Castro.
Havana had for years been a moviemad city. Under Batista, Hollywood product had crowded out most other fare; but for the curious, there were opportunities to see all sorts of films, opportunities that expanded in the years right after the revolution. This rich film culture had its effect on those Cubans who longed to make films themselves. By mid-1961, when the proposal for I Am Cuba would have been floating about, there had been just enough production beyond the aesthetic limits of the news-reel to elicit a landmark speech from Fidel Castro, "Words to the Intellectuals." This was the occasion when he put forth the formula "Within the revolution, everything; against the revolution, nothing." Given its timing--two months after the Bay of Pigs--this doctrine was not so much a threat as a daring promise. Despite the all-too-credible prospect of destruction by a vastly superior force, Castro pledged that non-revolutionary (as distinguished from anti-revolutionary) artists would find in Cuba "a place to work and create, a place where their creative spirit ... has the opportunity and freedom to be expressed."
It was this proposed wonderland of personal expression (newly established on an island where northerners had long been accustomed to letting go) that greeted Mosfilm's production team, headed by director Mikhail Kalatozov. A few years earlier, Kalatozov had scored an international hit with The Cranes Are Flying; he also had enjoyed a successful bureaucratic career, having served, at various times, as a studio head, Soviet consul in Los Angeles and Deputy Minister of Cinematography. On the face of it, he would not have seemed a man to run wild in the tropics. But Kalatozov's tastes had been formed during the Soviet Union's era of heroic experimentation, under the influence of Dziga Vertov and Esther Shub, and his career since then had been marked by frequent gaps, the result of official disfavor over his chronic "formalism." Even while he was readying IA m Cuba for the camera, in October 1962, Kalatozov came under attack from Mosfilm's Art Council on the grounds that he had irresponsibly. subordinated the subject matter and characters of his latest film, The Letter Never Sent, to the pleasures of direction and cinematography. By the time of this attack, of course, the screenplay for I Am Cuba had been finished (written by Yevgeny Yevtushenko and Enrique Pineda Barnet) and the casting was set; everything was in place to make a rhapsody, rather than a manifesto. …