There are many ambitious set pieces in this Soviet-Cuban communist-humanist epic and you've probably heard about a few of them, such as the lengthy single take in which the camera whirls all around a party full of American tourists at a Cuban hotel that starts on the roof and follows partying men and women all around, making you complicit in their excess, and goes so far as to go down an elevator and then follow a young woman into a pool and then even underwater. All of this in 1964 before high-tech camera rigs or special effects that mask cutting. There is arguably nothing like this acrobatic excess in the history of movies, and it is why film buffs blather on about "I Am Cuba."
What's missed when discussing the craft of this maximalist, naturalistic cult classic, though, is the purpose to all of these shots. They bolster the intensity here, as if the camera itself internalized some Marx and intends to explore every scene until it finds what it wants to find which is always the capitalist evil lurking underneath. In another unbroken take, the camera begins on the dead body of an activist killed during a protest, then follows his public funeral up the street and then the camera rises high up above the body and then seemingly floats across to another building and goes inside that building, revealing a room of people making cigars—you know, the ones dick-head Americans fetishize and smuggle over the border and reduce Cuba to a symbol of and all of that.
The contradiction here is that it all has a kind of decadence to it which contrasts greatly with the movie's stories, all four of them metaphors for exploitation or quick how-tos on the ways you should respond to capitalism: A prostitute is cruelly taken advantage of by an American, a principled sugarcane farmer burns his field rather than sell it to United Fruit Company, a student revolutionary becomes a martyr, and soldiers improvise their way through a fight in the mountains. Tellingly, most critics just fawn over the cinematic fireworks and dismiss this stirring commie melodrama or call it propaganda (every fucking Hollywood movie made in this country is propaganda too, you ding-dongs). And maybe all of this over-the-top showboating cinema isn't antithetical to its themes after all, because the movie embodies the importance of hard work and collaboration like no other because "I Am Cuba" is like no other movie. Wide lenses bend every image, making it kind of druggy and unreal, and the film stock is infrared, like "La Dolce Vita" by way of Herb Ritts photos as directed by big loud leftie Orson Welles. Revolution has never seemed so elegant or confounding.
Directed by Mikhail Kalatozov; Playing at the Charles Theater Aug. 1 and Aug. 3