The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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Return to Table of Contents January 2008 Return to Table of Contents
There Will Be Blood
ASC Close-Up
DVD Playback
I Am Cuba
The Graduate
Days of Heaven
I Am Cuba, The Ultimate Edition (1964)
1.33:1 (Full Screen)
Dolby Digital Monaural
Milestone Cinematheque/New Yorker Video, $44.95

I am Cuba. Once, Christopher Columbus landed here. He wrote in his diary: ‘This is the most beautiful land ever seen by human eyes.’ Thank you, Señor Columbus. When you saw me for the first time, I was singing and laughing. I waved the fronds of my palms to greet your sails. I thought your ships brought happiness.” Provided by Raquel Revuelta, the soft voice of a collective nation speaks delicately over the dreamlike opening images of I Am Cuba (Soy Cuba), which depict a tropical paradise with monochromatic skies and white-hued palms billowing over a tranquil sea while natives peacefully carry on their daily routines. Juxtaposed with this tranquility is a jazz-filled party high atop a sunny Havana tower, where wealthy tourists enjoy cocktails and a beauty pageant in the American-influenced Cuba of dictator Fulgencio Batista.

There, a series of vignettes depicting 1950s life in Cuba begins as we meet three American businessmen and the local prostitutes whose company they are enjoying. After paying for sex at a house in a local slum, one of the businessmen gets lost and is quickly surrounded by hungry children begging for coins. Meanwhile, a cropper in the rich farmland learns that the landowner has sold out to United Fruit, meaning the worker and his children no longer have a home or jobs. A group of college radicals who support Fidel Castro firebomb a drive-in theater showing pro-Batista propaganda and then disburse in Havana, where one attempts to execute Batista. In the mountains, a poor family feeds a wandering revolutionary who is looking for Castro’s army; once the wanderer leaves, anti-Castro soldiers bomb the countryside with tragic results for the innocent family.

Russian director Mikhail Kalatozov created a miraculous cinematic epic with I Am Cuba, which represents an unusual moment in both world and film history. In the early 1960s, after Fidel Castro came to power, the Soviet Union was looking to finance films to promote socialism and agreed to co-produce a film about the Cuban Revolution with Castro’s government. When Kalatozov got the job, he envisioned a Cuban-style Battleship Potemkin, Sergei Eisenstein’s landmark portrayal of the Russian Revolution. After tapping Soviet poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko and radical Cuban novelist Enrique Pineda Barnet to write the screenplay, Kalatozov teamed with gifted cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky, with whom he had collaborated on The Cranes Are Flying and The Unmailed Letter.

The director included Urusevsky in all aspects of the project’s development, and the pair worked with the screenwriters on the project’s story and style elements for a year before filming began. The filmmakers agreed that the picture called for a visceral, authentic visual style, so Urusevsky opted to use mostly handheld shots and extremely long takes. An clair camera allowed him to shoot with maximum dexterity, and a 9.8mm lens gave each setup a slightly distorted but visually potent composition. The result was an ethereal, poetic visual landscape that has become one of the most distinctive and accomplished in the history of motion pictures.

Because the Cuban and Soviet governments disliked the film, I Am Cuba was rarely screened; it appeared in the United States for the first time in 1992 at the Telluride Film Festival. After securing rights to the project, Milestone Film & Video asked Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese to help finance a theatrical run, and when the two filmmakers agreed, the film was released in 1995.

Milestone Cinematheque/New Yorker Video recently issued I Am Cuba as a three-disc Ultimate Edition DVD, which is packaged in a handsome cigar box. Milestone released an adequate, barebones DVD in 2000, but this new edition is clearly the best way to experience Kalatozov’s rich tapestry on home screens. The image transfer is better this time out, offering beautifully crisp contrast, excellent reproduction of gray scale and good detail in shadows and blacks. Any minor inconsistencies in quality are due to the source material, which is, understandably, somewhat worn. The audio track has been restored as well, and there is virtually no age-related hiss in the monaural presentation.

The generous supplements in this package include a 26-minute introduction featuring Scorsese; The Siberian Mammoth (2005), Vicente Ferraz’s excellent feature-length documentary that meticulously charts I Am Cuba’s production; the informative feature-length documentary A Film About Mikhail Kalatozov (2006), directed by the filmmaker’s grandson Mikhail Kalatozishvili; a 30-minute interview with Yevtushenko recorded in 2004 at CUNY’s City Cinematheque; the title sequence from the Cuban version of the film; the original theatrical trailer from 1995; a gallery of stills; and a booklet of production and restoration information.

This wonderfully produced DVD is a must for serious cinephiles and presents a great opportunity for casual viewers to get acquainted with this utterly unique film.

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