By: Henry J. Fromage (Two Beers) –
In 1993, Martin Scorcese attended a private screening of a film that had escaped even his voracious film appetite up until then. He was so impressed, that he spread the word to Francis Ford Coppola, and they spearheaded an effort to get it the proper recognition it deserved as one of the most innovative, spectacularly made films of all time. That film?
Okay, no, it was Soy Cuba (I Am Cuba), filmed by Russian Mikhail Kalatozov with full Cuban cooperation during their best buddies Cuban Missile Crisis stage, and ultimately rejected by both nations for being surprisingly sympathetic to even its dirty imperialist characters on one hand, and being somewhat stereotypical in its activities towards Cubans on the other. As a result, it faded into obscurity for almost 30 years.
The film itself consists of four stories showing the plight of common Cubans both before and during the Castro-led fight for independence, forming a simple but powerful filmed monument of the Cuban Revolution.
I watched Citizen Kane a few weeks ago, and it wowed me all over again with its creative camerawork and innovative technical design. Soy Cuba, in my opinion, blows it out of the water. Of course, coming more than 20 years later, that’s not a fair comparison, but that should give you an idea of how simply jaw-dropping the aesthetic and pure filmmaking skill and creativity on display here are.
I would like to see a comparison of Scorcese’s use of tracking shots before and after watching Soy Cuba. You could call this film the tracking shot film. Even since CGI opened up a world of possibilities, I still have yet to see a shot as ballsy and breathtaking as the funeral shot in this film. I won’t tell you how they did it, but don’t worry, after you see Soy Cuba you will immediately go and look it up. As for the incredible POV balcony fall shot… I still don’t know how they did that.
The camera floats and moves in this film like a sentient creature, mirroring the mood and psyches of the characters it documents while also inexorably drawing the viewer in and making them a participant, whether they like it or not. The creativity and accomplishment don’t stop there, as everything from the sound design to the choice of film stock demonstrate superb artisanry and control.
This isn’t just a technical masterpiece, however, but also a touching, often tragic, but ever hopeful document of a people struggling to be free. It’s more poetic than dramatic, more literary than filmic, almost like a Latin American author like Miguel Asturias’s work come to life. It’s beautiful, and heartbreaking, and triumphant. It’s a masterwork.
While the film does a great job of avoiding the common pitfalls of propaganda, it’s still undoubtedly propaganda. This also is no Battle of Algiers– instead of having a realistic, almost documentary-level of authenticity, it’s unquestionably an outsider’s view, and more concerned with art than history. And yeah, the dubbed “American” voices are pretty damn bad.
If you consider yourself a fan of cinematography, your education is woefully incomplete until you see this. If not, you’ll still find a very moving film and a fascinating slice of cinema (and social) history.
Take a Drink: for musical interludes
Take a Drink: whenever sugar or sugar cane comes up
Take a Drink: for every communist or revolutionary sentiment
Take a Drink: for egregious voice dubbing
Do a Shot: every time you think “How the fuck did they do that?”