What an absolutely fascinating film. Pure propaganda for the then newly victorious revolutionary government of Cuba, funded by the Soviet Union and created with both Cuban and Soviet creatives (directed by the Cannes Palme d’Or director Mikhail Kalatozov), and absolutely engrossing from a technical standpoint, the film doesn’t quite reach as high from a narrative point of view.
Four separate vignettes that tie together thematically about the need to rise against the American proletariat, some are more successful than others. I think the best of the four is the second, where we see a tenant farmer told by his landlord that he has sold the land and the farmer must go. The farmer sends off his children to have a nice day in the village and proceeds to burn the crops and the small cabin they had called home. I think that the only major flaw in this small story is the fact that the farmer just suddenly keels over dead. It doesn’t quite fit the particulars of the action (though a heart attack is not a difficult thing to imagine), and feels over-dramatic.
And that’s really what hampers the narratives of the other three, a sense of over-dramatics that end up diving head first into melodrama. The first story is centered around a Cuban girl who prostitutes herself to American tourists. Having her sell her precious crucifix to her john after their night together is enough. Having her fiancé walk in to see the girl and the john dressing afterwards is too much. Then the john wanders through the slums as the poor beg him for any money and the voice of Cuba hypnotically hammers home the obvious message. The narrative of all four (least of all the second) gets hampered by the need to propagandize.
What’s ironic to me is that the film was suppressed by Soviet authorities because they found it to be not propaganda enough for their tastes, but the propaganda seems to drip off of everything to me. Still, I don’t love this movie because it makes me want to take up arms and join the glorious cause alongside Fidel and Che (it doesn’t). No, I love this film because in addition to having four largely good stories (hampered, of course), it is a marvelous technical exercise.
There’s an early shot that gets a lot of attention when people talk about this movie. The camera starts on the roof of a hotel, goes down the side of the building, wanders through a sitting area, and ends up filming swimming tourists under the water. I wasn’t that blown away by the shot, but there’s one later, in the third story, that did blow me away.
We’ve seen a group of students bravely rebel against the tyrannical Batista by printing leaflets, confronting the police, and defending Lenin. A shootout ensues and several of the students get murdered by the police. There’s a funeral procession and the camera, in a magnificent shot, follows along the ground, goes up the side of a building, through a group of cigar rollers who stop what they’re doing to unfurl a Cuban flag against the building, and the camera then passes over the crowd, in mid-air, and watches the coffin from above. There’s one seam in the shot (we can see the wire the camera is traveling on as it passes over the crowd), but I’m still amazed at the achievement.
The camera movement doesn’t completely capture the depth of the filmmaking ability there. The film is primarily made up of long shots that drift in an out of action. All done without Steadicam (which wasn’t invented for about another 15 years), the camera rushes into conversations and ends up with perfect compositions. Like the American john in the foreground looking blankly at the prostitute while her fiancé stares at him over his shoulder, just out of focus. Or the shot of the prostitute and her fiancé walking along the street as he sells fruit early in the story and the camera suddenly tilts to see the two at the bottom right and the full form of the church in Havana that dominates the top left.
It’s a very good movie, all done in the service to one of humanity’s great evil regimes. Your mileage may vary.
Netflix Rating: 5/5
Quality Rating: 3.5/4