Culture | The path of slavery, or the path of the star?

Aesthetics and politics rub up against each other in director Mikhail Kalatozov’s Soy Cuba

While Soviet agitprop might not exactly be renowned for its nuanced depiction of human beings, Mikhail Kalatozov’s Soy Cube (I Am Cuba) mixes poetry and polemic in a way that takes it beyond crass indoctrination.

“We saw the film as a kind of poem, as a poetic narrative,” cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky told Iskusstvo Kino magazine in 1965. The director’s strong visual sense is already apparent in the opening scene as the camera pans in from above, showing the glimmering ocean, the forests of slender palms. Over top of these scenes comes the disembodied voice of Cuba, soft-spoken and feminine, self-assured with a clean edge of regret. She addresses Christopher Columbus, quoting how he praised her beauty, and thanking him for the compliment. The voice broaches the contradictions of mid-century Cuba through the metaphor of its major commodity: “A strange thing, sugar. Señor Columbus – it contains so many tears, but it is sweet.”

The camera jumps to scenes of glamour and decadence – bathing beauties in a rooftop pool against the backdrop of the Havana skyline. Kalatozov has an eye for seductive images, and it’s with this fine visual sense that he makes some of his most nuanced statements. The attractions of this colonial paradise are clear, though his quarry is the injustice underneath.

The film follows the four “typical” Cubans, taking us from the streets of Havana to the vast sugar cane fields of the countryside. The stories function more as symbolic tableaux than accounts of actual people; unsurprisingly, the film got a poor reception in Cuba for its use of cultural stereotypes. We see a girl forced to prostitute herself out to the rich foreigners, or a hardworking family man whose land gets sold out from under him to United Fruit. The film’s subjects often come off as caricatures: American men are pigs, American women are glamorous accessories, Cuban men are generous and self-sacrificing, and Cuban women, finally, are noble-hearted damsels in distress.

Still, there are some interesting moments that don’t follow the expected story line. All of the main characters get one moment of intense inner struggle, conveyed through spinning cameras and montages. In the dance club, being tossed from one wealthy American lecher to another, Maria reels away and tries to regain control by dancing even harder. Another scene features university students talking about killing Batista’s successors one after another. The one female student among them asks: “Then how will we spend the rest of our lives?”

The film has a knack for giving complex problems a simple, compact expression, which makes sense, considering a poet wrote the screenplay. Yevgeny Aleksandrovich Yevtushenko was an active dissident throughout the Stalinist area, and currently enjoys international fame.

Criticized in Russia for not being adequately revolutionary, the film depicts individual helplessness and indecision almost as much as it does oppression, the way systems trap people and grind them down. This dynamic comes out in a recurring visual motif, involving numerous shots of the characters in desolate isolation, dwarfed against the landscape: the vast sugar cane fields, the city, and the sea. It’s one of the more human propaganda pieces I’ve seen–– and going after a BA in German and Chinese culture, I’ve had to see a few.

Many of the characters start off unwilling to kill. Enrique, the heroic student militant, is unable to bring himself to shoot a man who’s already eliminated some of his fellow students. When asked why, he answers simply: “I couldn’t. He was having fried eggs for breakfast.” When a guerrilla fighter turns up at the home of Mariano the farmer and tries to persuade him to join the revolution, Mariano tells him: “These hands aren’t for killing; they’re for sowing.” The man replies: “But the land they’re sowing isn’t yours.”

Particularly in the confrontations between students and police, Kalatozov shows an aversion to revolutionary violence, but ultimately deems it necessary. In one highly symbolic scene, a flock of doves is shown flying over the city, against the sounds of police orders and machine gun fire. Enrique picks up a dove that’s been shot and holds it up in front of him with an accusing stare, placing responsibility for the death of peace squarely in the hands of the authorities.

“There are two paths for people when they are born,” the voice of Cuba says. “The path of slavery, it crushes and decays. And the path of the star, it illuminates but kills. You will choose the star.” The film ends – surprise! – with a revolutionary calls to arms.

Above and beyond its ideological content, Soy Cuba is visually stunning, and it’s not difficult to understand why it garnered acclaim from big names like Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola.

What one won’t get is the sense that revolutions, like the systems they fight against, are also made by flawed human beings.

It is propaganda, after all.

Soy Cuba plays between March 7 and 11 at Cinema du Parc. For more information visit cinemaduparc.com.


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