From Russia with love

Mikhail Kalatozov's account of the Castro revolution, Soy Cuba, is more than Soviet agitprop. It's one of the great forgotten movies of the 1960s, says Richard Gott

Saturday November 12, 2005
The Guardian
 
They were making Soy Cuba when I first went to Havana in 1963, and my hotel seemed full of Russians. Even today this Soviet-Cuban film that purports to be about Cuba's revolution is a wonderful evocation of everyone's first-time impressions of the island, with the royal palm trees in the countryside and the Havana skyline taking pride of place. It remains one of the great movies of the 1960s, though it rarely appears in dictionaries of film. Few people outside Cuba or the old Soviet Union have ever seen it, and it was not shown in the US until the 1990s. Those who have had the chance to see it recognise it at once as one of the masterpieces of world cinema, the outcome of the Soviet Union's first exposure to the world beyond its frontiers since Eisenstein's encounter with the Mexican revolution in the 1930s which produced his unfinished opus Viva Mexico.

The Soviet bear-hug that Cuba received in the early 1960s has rarely had a good press. According to several historical accounts, the Cuban revolution was effectively squeezed to death by its new imperial overlord, and the island was then doomed to disappear for several decades behind an iron curtain in the Caribbean. This version of events can be accepted or rejected at will, yet about one forgotten aspect of this relationship there is no debate: the Russians themselves loved Cuba. They could not believe their luck. Here was a freshly minted revolution that declared its support for the Soviet Union and for socialism, and was taking place on an exotic Caribbean island.

Old hands at the top like Nikita Khrushchev and Anastas Mikoyan, who had witnessed their own Russian revolution at first hand, were excited and rejuvenated by the Cuban experience. They saw Fidel Castro and Che Guevara as younger versions of themselves. Yevgeny Yevtushenko, a poet from the next generation, found himself following in the footsteps of VV Mayakovsky, another great Russian poet who had been in Cuba in 1925. Yevtushenko had first visited the island as a correspondent for Pravda, and was soon recruited to write the screenplay for Soy Cuba. He too revelled in the colour and sounds of the tropics. For a director like Mikhail Kalatozov, who only knew of the unknown continent of Latin America through the fragments of Eisenstein's Mexico, the chance of making a film about Cuba was to put a lifetime's experience to good use.

A cinematic account of Cuba's revolution had been discussed and planned in the early months of the new Soviet relationship, after the US-sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961. Castro, like all good leftists, was an enthusiastic follower of cinema, well versed in Hollywood productions, and well aware of film's usefulness as propaganda. His student friend Alfredo Guevara, a movie-maker and an independent-minded communist, had been put in charge of ICAIC, the new state film enterprise, creating one of the most significant and long-lasting achievements of the revolution. ICAIC produced a string of prize-winning feature films as well as the brilliant documentaries of Santiago Alvarez.

Cinema had been the chief relaxation of the Cuban public ever since the 1920s, and in no other country in the world did US films play such an important role in popular culture. The activities of film stars were laid bare in Havana's fashion magazines and gossip columns, providing models for how people should look and what they should wear. By the 1950s, more than 500 cinemas had been built across the island: air-conditioned cinemas, drive-in cinemas, and even the triple wide-screen Cinerama.

With the revolution, the importation of US films slowed down, and after the imposition of the economic embargo it stopped altogether. The Russians moved in to fill the gap, showing films and helping to make them too. Mosfilm, the Soviet film studio, jumped at the chance of joining forces with ICAIC to produce a film about the revolution, and two of its star figures, Kalatozov, the director, and Sergei Urusevsky, the cameraman, were despatched to Havana with the untested Yevtushenko as the scriptwriter.

Kalatozov, born in Georgia, was nearly 60, with a long and inevitably conflictive career in the Soviet film industry behind him. Starting in the 1920s in the days of Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov, he had moved in and out of favour, but a recent film, The Cranes Are Flying, had been an international triumph. This story of a love affair in wartime Russia, with Urusevsky behind the camera, had won the Palme d'Or at Cannes in 1958. Kalatozov was now given the opportunity to do for the Cubans what Eisenstein had done for the Russians – to make a movie like Battleship Potemkin, the classic film account of the Russian mutiny in Odessa during the revolution of 1905.

Sponsored by Mosfilm and ICAIC, Soy Cuba was supposed to be a joint production, and Yevtushenko had a Cuban counterpart, Enrique Piñeda Barnet, also a writer and poet, to lend a hand with the script. But the film that eventually emerged was a Soviet take on the Cuban experience. The Cubans provided the history, the scenery and the actors, many of them amateurs, but the Russians controlled the direction, the script and the camerawork.

Set in the mid-1950s, in the middle of the Batista dictatorship, the film was originally designed to have five related scenes, although these were eventually boiled down to four discrete episodes.

In the first, an American tourist picks up a Cuban girl in a bar and is taken to her home in a shanty town; his departure in the morning causes dismay to a Cuban fruit seller, already enrolled in revolutionary activities, who loves the girl. In the second, a peasant is evicted from his cane field because the land has been sold by his landlord to the US United Fruit Company; he sets fire to the cane and burns down his house in despair. In the third and central section, a student revolutionary plans to shoot the fascist police chief but cannot bring himself to fire the shot when he sees the man surrounded by his young family. He leads a student demonstration on the steps of Havana university in a scene that echoes the massacre on the Odessa steps in Potemkin, and is himself shot by the policeman who has none of the liberal qualms of his victim. In the final section, a peasant in the Sierra Maestra who wants nothing more than to be left in peace is drawn into the revolutionary war after his home has been bombed by Batista's air force. Three captured guerrillas, asked about the whereabouts of the revolutionary leader, claim proudly in turn: "I am Fidel."

The bare bones of the script may read like a propaganda endorsement of the accepted Cuban version of their revolutionary history, yet in the hands of Kalatozov it becomes an epic and poetic account that transcends its subject matter. It has many European echoes, recalling the movies made about the fight against fascism and about the partisan struggles in the second world war. Yet there are also references, in the early scenes in the Havana bar, to the old Hollywood movies that used Latin America as a romantic and escapist backdrop. Here the tourist cliche turns into a subtly-sketched portrait of the Ugly American.

Most memorable of all is Urusevsky's innovative camerawork. Filmed in luscious black and white, the hand-held camera moves in long continuous takes, sweeping languidly through the fields of sugar cane, or moving across the Havana rooftops, past the bathing belles, into the swimming pool and under the water. In one incident Batista's face appears in a newsreel shot at a ceremony celebrating his alliance with the Americans. The image slowly breaks up and bursts into flame, while the camera pulls back to reveal the American-style drive-in cinema that has just been fire-bombed by the revolutionaries.

The Cubans had mixed feelings about the film. Maybe it reminded them too much of the old American era which clearly fascinated the Russian film-makers. Maybe they did not care for the scenes of extreme poverty in town and country that they were trying to forget and to remedy. Maybe they would have preferred a more heroic presentation of their revolution. But for the ordinary viewer over the years, the film, as its title implies, is not so much about the revolution as about Cuba itself. It brilliantly evokes the vibrant atmosphere of the island, and of that extraordinary decade when the Cubans moved out of the American sphere and began to carve out a new world of their own imagining.

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