In the eyes of struggling American leftists, Cuba has never looked so good. Its revolutionary rhetoric and iconic images have become a staple of the American urban-chic style. Cuba’s story pops up again and again—you can’t read an alternative weekly these days without hearing of a new indie movie showcasing Cuba’s drive for justice.
But if a famously beautiful film were to detail the realities of Castro’s Cuba, would two lefty auteur directors still tirelessly promote its release?
Mihkail Kalatazov’s I Am Cuba was dug out of the depths of Soviet film rejects and proudly released in the United States in 1995 by Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese, after the Cold War’s official end. Recently re-released at Film Forum, it blends political agenda seamlessly with delicate cinematic art. It is a high-brow propaganda film, mixing surrealistic lyricism with blatant evil-American caricatures. It is true agit-prop imbued with unusual amounts of complexity—of silent shame and burning outrage, of lush beauty and teeming filth—given to a quivering Cuba on the brink of revolution. Filmed in striking high-contrast black-and-white, the camera undulates through nightclubs, ghettos, shorelines, industrial wastelands, schools, and sprawling plantations. It often disintegrates into dizzying fits of blur meant to mimic the rising pressure in all four corners of society.
Filmed around the time of the Cuban missile crisis, I Am Cuba depicts late Batista-era decadence and depravity in four separate vignettes. The film is light on talk and heavy on allegory. The noble victims of Batista’s capitalist society—prostitutes, peasants, university students, the renegade Castro himself—are graceful contrasts to oafish, imperialist Americans, appearing in the form of emotionless businessmen or harassing soldiers. Cuba is beautiful. Exotic. Natural. Boiling with energy. It has an innate sense of what must be done. It is willing to fight in the name of independence, truth and equality. The very idea of such fervor sends shivers down a hopeful liberal’s spine.
From the swaying palm trees in the beginning credits to the final victory march, the temperament of the revolution in I Am Cuba is uniformly passionate and determined. Yet Castro never materializes; he is only a mythical urgency in the nascent movement. The narrative stops short, excluding the inevitable violence of any revolutionary struggle. The film correctly implies the improvement of the sugar farmers’ lives, but it was filmed before Castro’s subsequent ban of independent trade unions. Only the motivated minds that later triumph are part of the tale; absent is the story of the Padilla affair and Cuba’s other 1,000 jailed political dissenters. What a lucky find for the waning American left. I Am Cuba fits perfectly into the trend of Cuba’s utopian image. There couldn’t be a better time to re-release this stirring masterpiece.
While the dirty details are missing from I Am Cuba mainly as a result of its 1964 production year, the omissions of last year’s The Motorcycle Diaries are deliberate. The film portrays a young dewy-eyed Ernesto “Che” Guevara on his adventures through South America before his comandante days. There is no political pontification, no talk of Cuba even—just a soul-searching Argentinian bowled over by the scenes and people he encounters. Against one breathtaking Argentinian, Chilean, Peruvian backdrop after another, humbly gorgeous Gael García Bernal convinces us of Che’s loyalty and pride. He feels for the afflictions of the less fortunate, and proves himself by defying all odds—swimming across the Amazon despite his debilitating asthma in order to spend his birthday with his beloved lepers. It all foreshadows the energy of his equally proud compatriots of the looming revolution. But the film, more consciously than I Am Cuba, leaves the rest up to our imagination—telling us, “It’s the thought that counts.”
And, admittedly, it’s a comforting thought. With the darker consequences of capitalism never more evident, there’s gotta be someone to look to. For the last few years, Che’s been the It boy. The Motorcycle Diaries is just one of the Che films that have been in the works recently, one of the more high-profile projects being Steven Soderbergh and Terrence Malick’s biopic. The finest filmmakers around are trying their hardest to capture the magnetism of Che—and the Cuban revolution.
But the appeal of the Cuban sense of justice, fueled by an utter lack of hope that the Democrats will ever get on track, wouldn’t be the same if the story was bogged down with paradox or disappointment. It’s easy to forget that Cuba’s revolution was not only nationalist but also Communist, an idea with which liberals aren’t entirely comfortable (ironically, I Am Cuba wasn’t released in the USSR because of its lack of explicit Socialist politics).
Cuba’s rebellion—now a source of validation, of fashion even—works less as a story and more as a symbol. Complexities would muddle the message. Soviet aid, blacklisting, re-education camps for homosexuals—it all ruins the romance. Who, then, would buy the stacks of red Che shirts sold at Urban Outfitters, ripped and distressed to perfection? Who would tattoo the words “Viva la Revolución!” on some sexy part of her body, smug in her latest permanent display of Cubaphilia?
It’s natural to crave inspiration in a society with leftist anorexia. But perhaps fawning over a 46-year-old dictatorship is not the best way to quell the hunger.
Aronowitz is a 25-year-old journalist and cultural critic.