I am a Technical Masterpiece, A late review on the movie “Soy Cuba”
A Soviet and Cuban communist revolutionist propaganda movie, Mikhail Kalatozov’s Soy Cuba (1964) is a visual poetry that is not lost to time. A movie so gorgeous that, at first glance, the point the movie Soy Cuba trying to make may become overshadowed by its incredible cinematography. The director of photography Sergei Urusevsky’s striking style of mise-en-scene and light and the dance-like sequences written for the camera awe strucks even the most cinema illiterate. The movie is basically laid out like a storybook; An introduction to the island of Cuba followed immediately with the juxtaposition of the poor from a boat and the rich exploiting the island and turning it into a sin city with their pool parties and exaggerated nightlife. Then the viewer taken into the story of Maria (Luz María Collazo), a courtesan working to please the whims of rich travellers of Cuba. Then the story of Pedro (José Gallardo), a hard working Cuban who’s land taken away in a flash. Third, Enrique (Raúl García) a student who wants to change something in his country and becomes the martyr who breaks the camel’s back and mobilise the Cuban people and students even more towards the ideal of revolution. Finally Mariano (Salvador Wood), a family man who wants to keep his head down but bombed by his own government, revolts and join the revolution to finally bring the oppressors down. It sounds simple when written out but the stunning visuals make even this shallow message of communist revolt indistinguishable. This is why, according to sources the movie wasn’t loved as much as it has been today back than in the USSR. So what makes Soy Cuba a visual masterpiece? Kalatozov uses techniques ahead of its time, visual storytelling, stunning crane shots, meticulously planned long shots so much so that the visual poetry and the graphics of the movie dwarves the propaganda message in the story.
To elaborate, let’s start with the second story, the story of Pedro the sugarcane farmer, where the movie has its only flashback sequences. It uses techniques closer to contemporary cinema, but it still is way ahead of it. The sequence starts on palm trees when rain starts and Pedro watching out from the window in a medium shot illuminated only when lightning strikes. His slow movements and stillness and the constant dutch tilt when he’s the only character in the scene conveys that he is contemplating something somewhat dreadful. After several moments while he tends to his children, all in a single take, it cuts to Pedro’s face in a close up and the memories overwhelm the frame like raindrops and the scene fades into the actual flashback. Accompanied with slow guitar score and the scene’s slower playrate and the conceit of water and memories extended throughout the whole sequence the scene creates an aura of thoughtfulness on the audience. Here the shots follow a linear pattern; Young Pedro and his would be wife run among the sugarcanes but only the center of the frame is in focus and the rest blurs out in an iris pattern, more and more blurry closer to the edges. Then it fades to them getting married with a close-up on their hands and an additional hand belonging to a pastor. It fades to them having children and working in the field and then the wife dying with the sound cues accompanying the events. The guitar tone represents the life and memories of Pedro whereas the much lower piano tones represent sad things that happened to Pedro like the death of his wife and in the following fade, the taking of loan. Two loans to be precise. All these memories have a dreamy feel to them and it has been achieved with the blurs as mentioned and close-up shots. A Few minutes later, after they deliver the news of a sale of land to Pedro, a jarring camera technique is utilised to heighten the tension along with accompanying tense score. When Pedro starts to shout “I am not tired” to the clouds -probably to god- and works harder than ever, the camera starts to do whip pans imitating the movement of the cane knife. Every time Pedro struck the sugarcanes the camera turns to the sun than back to him when he raises his knife. The movement is harsh, and it contrasts and clashes the simple farm worker to the cosmic forces represented by the sun. Also the bright, almost white colours of the sugar canes and the sky, especially the clouds with their darker colour contrasting with bright dot of a sun is achieved by using a highly experimental infrared film stock produced by Soviet Union in a weapons factory (Ferraz I am Cuba, the Siberian Mammoth). The effect is much more apparent in Mariano’s story near the end of the movie. After the funeral, when Alberto (Sergio Corrieri) escapes through the thick palm trees, the leaves of the palm trees are near perfect white, and this can only be achieved through using infrared film stock.
The movie has the greatest crane shots for its time and even for contemporary cinema. Here are few examples of the techniques that are used. The director Kalatozov was a master of crane shots. The shot following to the burning of Pedro’s crops is undoubtedly is an evidence to that. He ties together a close-up and an extreme wide angle so well that this technique only, used throughout the movie is one of the reasons why the movie is adored even today. After Pedro collapses to the ground following to him burning his own house, the frame is filled with his unconscious face in close-up illuminated by natural light and fires everywhere and the moving shadows cast upon his face from the clouds and the smoke from the fire followed by a cut to a shot from the crane in medium shot framing the man’s senseless body and the cottage burning intensely. The shot is continued with a linear motion of the crane moves out and raises high with slightly tilting the camera down to keep the objects in the frame in the camera’s new position. The mastery of the crane shot can also be seen in the student protest scene near the end of the Enrique’s story. The students march down the steps of the university framed in a long shot and a slight tilt to from the horizon to encompass the whole steps and students in an unconventional perspective in the frame. When the students reach the street, the camera moves out to reveal the streets and the streams of water against the protestors. The tracking out of the camera is not as linear as it was in the burning cottage scene. Here the camera keeps shaking slightly as it does in the rest of the steadicam shots. Keeping the disturbed and shaken tone of the scene and doesn’t make it robotic by following a linear, steady path with no shake. After the camera reveals a part of the street and completes the first move horizontally it starts to ped down to the street level and gets in with the protestors to their eye level. After this crane shot the camera is transferred to a steadicam operator while recording and without cutting which then the operator tracks right and among the police. Another great crane shot is when Jim (Jean Bouise) tries to leave the Cuban favelas after a night at Maria’s house. Following an incredibly captivating long shot the last few frames starts when prompted by Jim turning a corner with a bird cage hanging on it. After Jim and an old man stare at each other at the corner for a few seconds he walks away and camera stays put but rotates clockwise around 40 degrees and starts to crane up. As it slowly rotates back to normal as it cranes and frames the entire road that Jim is supposed to walk. The framing here is based on a binary opposition, the road is almost diagonal to the frame with Jim walking towards the upper left corner whereas the poor Cuban people are left standing in the lower right corner. The camera never does rotate back to 0 degrees though, it keeps a degree of dutch tilt in order to convey the crooked perspectives and lives of Cubans under Batista regime. This shot of binary opposition is voiced over with non-diegetic monotonal narration. The voice of Cuba, the island provokes the rich after showing them the poor and hungry side of herself. And after Enrique fails to shoot the officer and faces Alberto while Enrique walks along the beach there’s another great thoughtful shot of the city that reflect the depressed psyche of Enrique. The shot starts with camera nearly on the half concrete wall on the marina with Enrique walking towards it. The wide angle lens distorts the upper half of Enrique because it sits much lower than the eye level, near hip level perspective. The natural light blocked by rain clouds adds to the depressive atmosphere. And when the actor starts to walk away from the camera cranes up a fixed amount with each step that the actor takes. There’s no score or voiceover in this scene, just the sounds of the waves most likely recorded in a foley studio or by a shore.
In addition to the masterful crane shots the long shots of Soy Cuba may even leave Revenant director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s work in the dust. The most striking long shot in the movie is without a doubt in the funeral sequence. Transition into this shot is with a whip pan and then the camera frames a church bell ringing. Then it whips 90 degrees left once more to frame another church bell. And repeats the action again but this time camera tracks closer to the bell’s bottom and rotates slightly to right. Then it pans down to reveal the crowd carrying Enrique’s body and a Cuban flag with people on their balcony throwing flowers at the crowd. Then it cuts to a medium shot of Gloria (Celia Rodriguez) in the crowd looking deadpan ahead at the later revealed to be the casket of Enrique. She steps away while Alberto joins the pallbearers. Camera tracks back slightly and moves up while tilting down to keep the funeral in the frame. Camera reaches to the top floor of the building and reveals some other people throwing flowers down behind a balcony grill. Then the camera slowly dollies right into the window of a tobacco factory and reveals two rows of cigar rolling workers. The camera then starts to track forwards and the workers hand a Cuban flag towards the back window to one another where the funeral can be seen. Then the camera flies out of the window and track forwards above the crowd while people from the left balcony throw flowers. The score in this sequence is both sad and triumphant.
There’s another unforgettable sequence in Maria’s story. When she meets Jim at the hotel and after they draw lots to decide who’s going to dance (!) with whom, there’s a dance sequence starting on a couple dancing behind some bamboo who quickly slides left and out of the frame with the camera panning left to keep the woman in the shot but the camera does this staying behind the bamboo which creates a peek effect, this might mean the audience is not invited to the party but watches people dance behind some obstruction. Or as if the people in the dance pit are prisoners of their ego and their hedonism and they’re depicted behind bars, not prison bars but represented with the tropical, hedonistic bamboo bars, how fitting for Cuba. The camera continues to pan and move leftwards then sticks with one of the couples from earlier and tracks back with them and pans slightly right. Synchronised with the dance move of the woman the camera too pans 30 degrees to the right then pans left to where it was. Repeats the action again with the camera slightly closer to the woman and again, and a fourth time when this time the camera sticks with the woman who moves erratically forward, and the camera moves left with her. Then she leaves the frame from the left and the frame is left with a large tiki head to the left in the medium shot, extreme close up of bamboo bars and people dancing to the right. Camera pans right and tracks in towards the couple dancing immediate to the lens and moves past them. Then pans right tracking a woman dancing then pans back left. The camera follows the back-and-forth movements of the woman for a little while and then from the right of the frame Maria and Jim enters. Camera tracks slightly backwards when bamboo bars jump in from behind the camera. The couple swings back and forth and comes closer to the camera and to the closer side of the bamboo bars. While Jim swings Maria back and forth the camera tracks slightly back when they’re apart and forwards when they’re closer it is almost like the camera is dancing with them. Then Jim pushes close to Maria, and she moves slowly backwards all the while camera tracks left while a man jumps in behind from the bamboo bars and yanks Maria to the center of the dance floor. At the same time camera pans to left and rotates counterclockwise very fast and then springs to right to track Maria on the dance floor. Who then pushed back to another man’s arms while camera tracks with a left pan. And then the man pushes Maria again with camera still tracking with a left pan on which Maria comes to a close-up. She is then pushed around again towards right, then to left and spun around which the view of the camera is blocked by the large tiki head, the camera pans to right and Maria jumps from the back of the tiki head towards right and then pulled by another man while her back is turned. The camera follows with rightwards tracking motion obstructed partially by the bamboo bars again and then tracks forwards while Maria is dragged backwards, away from the camera. She is swung left to right while camera tracks them again with a left pan and when the man pushes Maria away from the right of the frame to the right, the camera whips to left around 180 degrees while tracking her. She’s again in the arms of Jim, the three of them including the camera start to dance again. Maria moves left to right, closer and further from Jim and the camera moves backwards when they separate and bounces forward when they are close. And Jim pushes Maria again to the left the camera tracks and spins around when Maria seems down, hanging onto the bamboos and music stops while camera slightly rotates clockwise and closes in on Maria’s face. She starts dancing again with the percussion drums while camera moves closer and rotates back to horizontal. Maria puts her hands to her head and swings left to right. The camera dances with her swinging left to right then right to left. Then she jumps out of the bamboos and onto the dance floor again. While dancing preposterously the camera moves leftwards and obstructed by bamboos again. She dances with a swinging motion from the bamboos and then it cuts to the businessman cheering with a slight clockwise rotation to the camera and the camera moves right, showing the faces of the crowd one by one including a tiki head again. Like a reverse shot it cuts to Maria dancing and moving towards left, then right while camera rotates around her and tracks the motion of her moves. Then it cuts to the crowd shot again, but this time the camera moves much faster. And the scene abruptly cuts to the entrance to the hotel.
In addition to these marvelous long takes there are two long takes in the opening of Soy Cuba. In the first one the boat is used as a dolly. Tilts and pans are used both ways to show the environment. The cameras in these shots are not bolted down onto anything, they are handheld cameras and a little shaky. The scene opens on a palm tree and a boatman slowly rowing. The camera pans slowly right and tilts down and locks onto two children sitting in a boat just for a moment. Then it pans right while a native woman who does her laundry the boatman ducks and pass under the cottage upon which the woman stands, the camera also ducks and passes under the cottage and tilts slightly up. Then pans left and draws in closer to the feet of the gondolier. With the other gondola entering the scene, camera again moves to back of the boat pans slightly right then cranes up onto standing position and pans right and locks onto the people walking on the wooden bridge.
Then it cuts to a scene that opens on a guitarist with a band on top of a skyscraper, camera moves to left and include the sax player and pans right to also keep the guitarist in the frame. The camera moves closer to ground and tilts up while the band jumps the camera rotates 15 degrees clockwise. Rotates back to normal, moves up to a height little lower than eye-height and tilts back to normal. With the band, camera moves towards the catwalk and pans right. Focuses on the women numbered 9 and 15 for a moment and pans left with number 15. She turns around while moving further from the camera to the catwalk while the camera starts to get onto the catwalk and slowly walk among the women in competition. When number 4 exits the frame and number 1 is revealed the camera moves in closer, pans left and rotates slightly clockwise around number 1. Then the camera pans left a bit more and reveal two photographers and a reporter. Locks onto the reporter and motivatedly moves with him onto the edge of the roof and pans right to reveal the pool downstairs. Then the cameraman steps onto an elevator and starts to crane down. Pans left to reveal the clapping crowd then right while continuing its descent. At the pool level the camera steps out of the elevator and starts to move towards the crowd, then dollies right and while pausing on a table on which a waiter puts a wine bottle, the camera gets slightly lower. Then it backs out and continues its rightwards movement. Pans right and locks onto an old man who takes two glasses of drink and starts to walk towards the right of the balcony. The camera pans to right some more and gets a bit closer to the old man’s target, the camera moves to right and pans left to focus on two of them and steps out of the glass fence and onto the balcony. Then after pausing on blonde woman whom the old man brought a drink, the camera starts a motivated move with her to inside of the glass fence. The woman walks away while camera dollies left and back inside and moves closer and down to some people playing cards pans slightly right, back at left moves in towards the pool while a woman gets up from her chaise longue and locks onto her. She turns back after taking her hat off and walks towards the pool the camera follows her closely. The camera moves slightly to the left to incorporate a sunbathing woman to the left while the woman previously mentioned slowly gets into the pool. The camera moves back to the right and follows the chaise longue woman getting into water. She moves aside to the right while the camera continues its forward and down motion and gets into water while another woman swims towards the camera underwater, she surfaces while the camera dives. Camera surfaces after a brief moment underwater. Then back and surfaces again, and then back under water while a woman with leotard swims under water from right to left the camera pans to left with her, she turns back but the camera continues to pan left and forward to show bubbles forming from the people swimming.
In conclusion the movie Soy Cuba is a technical masterpiece. With its long takes and masterful cinematography even Martin Scorsese who rediscovered the movie along with Francis Ford Coppola says about it that if he were to watch the movie when he was a young director he would have been a very different director then he is now (Ferraz I am Cuba, the Siberian Mammoth). Mikhail Kalatozov’s visual poetry overshadows the message of the movie so hard that even the people who financed it at some point stand against it. And also the political significance of the movie, the presence of Kalatozov during the height of the cold war and the Cuban missile crisis and him saying “I’ll make a movie in Cuba that will be my answer, and that of the whole Soviet people, against the naval blockade, this cruel aggression of American imperialism!” (Scott & 2013). The movie likely inspired so many directors and artist and it will continue to do so even if it is a propaganda for communism.
Ferraz, Vincente, director. I am Cuba, the Siberian Mammoth. EICTV, 2004
Scott, Blake. “I am Cuba, for Sale (1964).” Not Even Past, 25 Sept. 2013, notevenpast.org/i-am-cuba-sale/