June 12, 2011

Must Watch Before You Die #12: Soy Cuba (1964)

I recently watched three extremely political films of historic and cinematic importance. However, two of them left me pretty unaffected. They must have been great films, but for me they were difficult to appreciate. Not knowing their respective backdrops also left me wondering what they were exactly about, and it took me some reading to make myself acquainted with their content. But once I did, I found it interesting.

Two groups had led the anti-German struggle in Poland during the Second World War – the London-directed Home Army and the pro-Moscow People’s Army. As the German occupation comes to a sudden end in May, 1945, amidst a confused transition, the pro-Soviet faction takes control, resulting into the emergence of a Russian-backed Communist regime. The Home Army reacts to this and a state of civil war is created. Andrzej Wajda’s ‘Ashes and Diamonds’ (1958) is one day into the lives (and deaths) of characters from both parties – the Communist regime and the armed adversaries.

Jean Pierre-Melville’s ‘Army of Shadows’ (1969) tells an even more personal story of the French Resistance against the German occupation during the same war. The French government had surrendered on June, 1940 signing an armistice that provided for the German occupation of northern France. The struggle by some Frenchmen against this occupation came to be known as the Resistance, and soon the French government was helping the Germans suppress them with its own police and special forces. ‘Army of Shadows’ is a tragic insight into the difficult lives and dilemmas of these heroes of the Resistance.

Both these movies are highly acclaimed and celebrated over the years. And I can understand why, especially after reading about them. But perhaps it will take me some time, some years may be, to adequately appreciate them.

This, however, was not the case with ‘Soy Cuba’ (1964). Though clearly a propaganda film, and relying much more on form and style than the above-mentioned couple of films, this film by Mikheil Kalatozov will blow you away. I have never seen something like this. The film was not released after its completion and the world discovered it only three decades later. According to Martin Scorsese, the face of world cinema would have shaped differently if this film had got its due when it was made.

Following is the poem that opens the film along with a stunning imagery that makes it one of the best opening sequences in cinema:
I am Cuba.
Columbus landed here once.

He wrote in his diary,

“This is the most beautiful land
Human eyes have ever seen.”
Thank you, Mr. Columbus.
When you saw me for the first time,
I was singing and laughing,
I greeted the tufted sails,
I thought they brought me happiness.

I am Cuba.
My sugar was carried away in ships.
But my tears were left behind.

Sugar is a strange thing, Mr. Columbus.

So many tears go into it,
And still it's sweet.

It is poetic, and it is vitriolic. ‘Soy Cuba’ is as powerful as cinematic expression can get. I’m so glad that this film is now a part of my must-watch recommendation. You have to watch it before you die!

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