Movie Review – I Am Cuba

I Am Cuba (1964)
Written by Enrique Pineda Barnet & Yevgeny Yevtushenko
Directed by Mikhail Kalatozov

Capitalism is everywhere. In the wake of the fall of the Soviet Union, capitalism became the dominant economic ideology on the planet. There are only four communist states: China, Cuba, Laos, and Vietnam (North Korea operates under a philosophy of Juche, which while similar in some ways to communism, is not a representation of that system). Capitalist realism became the term to define this post-Soviet era, a play on “socialist realism,” an art style popular during the USSR’s existence. It’s from this constant presence of capitalism in all aspects of life that the phrase “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than an end to capitalism” was coined (attributed to both Frederic Jameson and Slavoj Zizek). So, if capitalism is the all-encompassing economic system of our lives, how is it represented in the media? 

I Am Cuba is an anthology film made in the years following Fidel Castro’s movement to overthrow the cruel regime of Fulgencio Batista. While the United States shut down many neighboring countries’ ability to trade with Cuba, the Soviet Union stepped in to help. It provided them a fantastic opportunity to help promote the global spread of communism, and they could help Cuba rebuild in the wake of the revolution. One of these ventures was a film co-production between the countries; it would be directed by Mikhail Kalatozov, who was given considerable freedom on the final product. The only request was to showcase what life was like before and after the revolution on the island.

In four short stories, we see the Cuban people’s reactions to the modes of suffering they have endured. Framing the entire film is voice-over narration from a female actress who speaks as Cuba. In the first story, Havana is overrun by Americans and their casinos. Maria is a peasant woman who wants to marry her fruit seller boyfriend, Rene. Maria secretly goes out to bars at night, introducing herself as Betty and doing sex work to help save money. Eventually, she gets caught by Rene when he comes early one evening, her American customer quickly leaving and stumbling through her shanty town village.

In the second tale, we watch Pedro, a sugar farmer, have his largest crop taken from him by an unscrupulous landlord who has sold the land to the United Fruit company. Pedro is told his family must leave immediately. However, the landlord ensures they know he’s keeping the crop to sell, and Pedro will receive nothing. Pedro gives his children all his money, keeping them in the dark about what is happening to the land. While they go into town and enjoy a variety of entertainment, Pedro sets the sugarcane and his home on fire, eventually dying from smoke inhalation. 

The third entry focuses on Enrique, a student at Havana University who has become frustrated with the patient and thoughtful revolutionary group he joined at school. Believing they aren’t working fast enough, Enrique plots to assassinate the chief of police on his own. He is about to take his shot, but the policeman is surrounded by children, so Enrique hesitates and backs down. Meanwhile, the student group is infiltrated by police who arrest the students. Enrique witnesses his comrades’ murders while they try to toss flyers to spread hope to the people. Enrique leads a protest and is killed himself, becoming a martyr to the cause.

The final story is about Mariano, a farmer, and his family. Mariano rejects an offer from a revolutionary to join the movement. Instead, the farmer says he wants to live in peace and won’t listen when the soldier tries to explain how Mariano’s children will suffer under Batista. Shortly after that, the Cuban government begins carpet bombing the jungles to take out revolutionaries, killing Mariano’s son and destroying the farm. He eventually reunites with the rebels and joins their march to liberate Havana. 

You’ll immediately be captivated by some of the best cinematography I’ve ever seen from a film of this era. The picture’s opening is a sweeping shot of the Cuban landscape, its lush jungles & beaches on display. Each of the short stories is filmed with so much creativity and thought put into every movement and staging. There’s a rooftop pool party shown early in the film where the camera moves seamlessly in one shot from an upper tier to a lower level, letting the audience become overwhelmed and overstimulated, pointing to the chaotic nature of capitalism. 

Movement is crucial in the film’s visual language, showcasing how Cuba is overflowing with life. Pedro, the farmer, is chopping sugarcane, and the camera swings back and forth, following his machete as it chops away. Later, the camera mimics the flapping of a flag as we look over the funeral procession of Enrique. Despite the movie being an anthology, the camerawork keeps the film flowing from one segment to the next. It wears its politics on its sleeve, but I would argue it presents a good case for the Cuban Revolution and provides a clear condemnation of imperialism & capitalism’s destructive effects on humanity.

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