Festival presents 3 views from Cuba

Cinema: From a historic baseball game to a critical look at the Castro regime to an experiment in propaganda, the films give new perspective on the nation.

The Maryland Film Festival

April 25, 2000|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

Given the current "All Elian, All the Time" universe, the Maryland Film Festival appears downright prescient, since it programmed three films this year having to do with Cuba.

One, "La Esquina Caliente," looks back to last year when the Baltimore Orioles and the Cuban National Team played historic games at each other's home stadiums.

Another, "This Is Cuba," is Chris Hume's critical look at the Castro regime, in which he interviews several Cuban citizens in rare, uncensored conversations.

But by far the most momentous screening for cinephiles will be the Friday and Saturday showings of "I Am Cuba," a film that was made in 1964 as a bold experiment in propaganda and cinematic expression and that has rarely been seen since.

The legendary Soviet filmmaker Mikhail Kalatozov spent two years writing the script for "I Am Cuba," traveling around the country with his cinematographer and screenwriters, the Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko and the Cuban poet Enrique Pineda Barnet, in search of imagery and narratives that would help him create the Cuban "Potemkin," Sergei Eisenstein's seminal film about the birth of the Russian Revolution.

The result was an extraordinary film that combined spoken verses with equally evocative visual images to create a movie that exists somewhere between the political and the poetic. Indeed, its images of pre-Castro Cuba, where American businessmen partied at swank nightclubs and bathing beauties lounged around lush swimming pools, made the Batista regime look like so much fun that the movie was buried by authorities in the Soviet Union and Cuba.

Aside from playing in a few European film festivals, the film went virtually unseen until 1992, when the Telluride Film Festival played it as part of a Kalatozov retrospective.

A triumphant screening at the San Francisco Film Festival followed, after which the preservationist-inclined distributor Milestone Films picked it up for theatrical release.

Alexander Calzatti, who was a camera operator on "I Am Cuba" and helped execute some of the film's most memorable and breathtaking shots, recalled recently that up until its release, the movie enjoyed great support from Castro, who attended weekly screenings during production.

"He'd come to the Cinemateque screening rooms with all his gang, what they called commandantes," Calzatti said from his home in Los Angeles. "They were all wearing green uniforms, and I remember big Rolex watches. It was a very friendly atmosphere, but in the end, he did not like what he saw."

Perhaps the most famous shot in "I Am Cuba" -- and one of two that garnered standing ovations while the movie was being shown at the San Francisco festival -- is when the camera travels down the glass elevator of a Havana hotel, disembarks, and follows a voluptuous bather into the swimming pool.

Calzatti invented the plastic covering that allowed cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky to shoot underwater, but to this day he says he is disappointed by the sequence.

"It was the most difficult shot," he recalled. "But when Kalatozov was beginning to edit, there was so much footage from two years of shooting. So he cut everything. And he cut the end of the pool shot. The camera goes just underwater, and that's it. It was supposed to come out!"

Even with that flaw, "I Am Cuba" is still one of the most sensuous, hypnotic and unforgettable films ever made.

"I Am Cuba" will be shown at 2: 15 p.m. Friday and 2: 30 p.m. Saturday at the Charles. "La Esquina Caliente" will be shown at 12: 15 p.m. Friday and 9: 30 p.m. Saturday at the Charles. "This Is Cuba" will be shown at 10: 15 a.m. Saturday at the Charles.

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