I Am Cuba

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Synopsis

Both a landmark of radical political cinema and one of the most visually ravishing films ever made, this legendary hymn to revolution shimmers across the screen like a fever dream of rebellion. The result of an extraordinarily ambitious collaboration between the Soviet and Cuban film industries, director Mikhail Kalatozov’s I Am Cuba unfolds in four explosive vignettes that capture Cuban life on the brink of transformation, as crushing economic exploitation and inequality give way to a working-class uprising. Backed by Carlos Fariñas’s stirring score, the dazzling camera work by Sergei Urusevsky—an inspiration for generations of filmmakers to follow—gives flight to the movie’s message of liberation.

Picture 8/10

Mikhail Kalatozov’s I Am Cuba receives a Blu-ray edition from The Criterion Collection and is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on a dual-layer disc. The 1080p/24hz high-definition is sourced from a new 4K restoration taken from a scan of a 35 mm fine-grain positive. I am working off the Blu-ray disc included with the 4K UHD edition. Outside of the lack of a 4K disc, the two editions are the same.

Considering how well the 4K edition came out, from the base restoration to the digital presentation itself, I expected this hi-def downscale to look great. However, I came out a little disappointed with the results.

As with the 4K edition, the restoration looks impressive, leaving only a few marks here and there. Details are still relatively sharp, and the range within the grays is still strong, though it falls a bit short of what the 4K can deliver (as expected). Where the presentation ultimately fails to meet expectations is in the encoding itself. The 4K’s looked reasonably clean, leading to a nice, consistent film-like texture, whereas this one is a bit more problematic. Macroblocking is more evident here, and as a consequence, film grain has an incredibly buzzy appearance.

It still beats out previous releases, the 4K excluded. Still, it’s a disappointment considering how well the 4K edition has turned out and how well some of Criterion’s other standard Blu-rays have turned out recently, The Runner and Dogfight, to name a couple.

Audio 6/10

Criterion includes the option of watching the film with its Spanish soundtrack or the alternate Russian dub, with both presented in lossless single-channel PCM. The Spanish one does sound a hair sharper and cleaner, but both sound fine. Though the range isn’t all that broad, with the higher points in the score sounding slightly harsh, they’re both clean without any signs of severe damage.

All that said, I think most will probably find the Russian soundtrack to be more of a curiosity than the soundtrack of choice since all it is is a Russian narrator speaking over the Spanish one (though the subtitles do appear to be a little different in translation).

Extras 6/10

Criterion's release of I Am Cuba includes one newly produced supplement: a 22-minute interview with cinematographer Bradford Young. In this interview, Young discusses the film's technical achievements despite the limitations of the period. He also explores how the film's photography creates moments and captures the feeling of the period.

While I enjoyed Young's passionate analysis, I couldn't help but wish for something more substantial, perhaps a visual essay or even a select-scene commentary. However, the inclusion of an archival interview with Martin Scorsese from 2003 at least adds to Young's insights. Scorsese shares his initial reaction to the film when it finally made its way to North America in the early-to-mid 90s, 30 years after being essentially buried by the Soviet and Cuban governments. He believes the film would have substantially impacted him and the film world in general if it had been more accessible earlier. Scorsese also notes the film's influence on filmmakers following its release in the 90s, citing Boogie Nights and its pool shot as an example.

While it's pretty obvious why the film never received an official release in North America before the collapse of the Soviet Union (Cold War and all), Scorsese isn't too sure why Cuba and Russia buried the film, though he has his own thoughts on that subject. This mystery is explored further in Vincent Ferraz's 90-minute 2004 making-of documentary, 'I Am Cuba,' the Siberian Mammoth, which gathers interviews with surviving cast and crew members and archival materials to deliver a comprehensive look into the film's production.

The documentary reveals the technical challenges faced during production, with one participant describing it as a "battle zone." It's fascinating to see what Ferraz uncovered, especially as to why the film disappeared, due mainly to the lack of appreciation around it in Cuba and Russia. In fact, most interviewees are dismissive of the film when asked about it, with only a few even admiring its technical achievements. At its simplest, many just found the film too arty. This leads to a section where the participants learn about its “classic” status in the West and how several filmmakers (including Martin Scorsese) have sung its praises. One individual is even shocked to see the film is on home video.

The film's history is thoroughly explored in the documentary, but this look into how Cuban audiences saw the film makes it one of the better making-of features I’ve seen.

The release also includes the film's 1995 trailer and an insert featuring an essay (translated from Spanish) by Juan Antonio García Borrero. In the essay, Borrero discusses the developing tensions between Cuba and the U.S. during the period, the new friendship between Cuba and the Soviet Union, and its impact on Cuba's national cinema and identity (the big takeaway sounds to have been “don’t have outsiders tell our stories”).

While all the included material is good, it still feels somewhat underwhelming. The only new feature outside the essay is the interview with Young, with the other supplements previously available on Milestone’s DVD release. The disc also lacks some of that release’s other features, such as a discussion with screenwriter Yevgeny Yevtushenko and a documentary on Kalatozov. Considering the film's pedigree, it feels like there should be far more included in this release.

Closing

As with the 4K edition, the release falls short in the supplement department. Unfortunately, the video presentation falls short as well.

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Directed by: Mikhail Kalatozov
Year: 1964
Time: 141 min.
 
Series: The Criterion Collection
Edition #: 1214
Licensor: Milestone Pictures
Release Date: April 23 2024
MSRP: $39.95
 
Blu-ray
1 Disc | BD-50
1.33:1 ratio
Russian 1.0 Dolby Digital Mono
Spanish 1.0 PCM Mono
Subtitles: English
Region A
 
 "I Am Cuba," the Siberian Mammoth, a 2004 documentary on the making of the film featuring key participants   Interview from 2003 with filmmaker Martin Scorsese   New appreciation of the film by cinematographer Bradford Young   Trailer   Alternate Russian-dubbed soundtrack   An essay by film critic Juan Antonio García Borrero