In this clip from Mikhail Kalatozov’s trailblazing film Soy Cuba, the camera takes in a beauty contest on the rooftop of a 5 star hotel in Batista-era Cuba, drops down the side of the building, circles around loungers sipping drinks and then plunges with a sunbather into a swimming pool: it inspired Paul Thomas Anderson’s poolside scene in Boogie Nights.
Just after the 1959 Cuban Revolution, the USSR sent the great unsung director from Moscow’s winter to tropical Cuban shores to create Soy Cuba (I Am Cuba), an epic feature that cast the country as its main character. Che Guevara visited the set, Fidel Castro watched the rushes and money was poured into the project. Non-actors were plucked off the streets of Havana and 5,000 soldiers were even removed from policing borders at the height of the missile crisis to work as extras. Shot with Soviet infrared film, which gave the palm trees a white-hot glow and made blue skies appear dark, it was Kalatozov’s grand poem to Cuba and its visual acrobatics were revolutionary at the time. But it was castigated in Cuba as counter-revolutionary and met with silence on its opening night in Havana. With no hope of a release in the West while both sides were in the grip of chilly cold war relations, the film disappeared for years until it was resurrected in the 90s by Martin Scorsese: “It wiped the slate clean, and redefined cinema,” he said. “If I had seen it earlier, I would have made films in a totally different way. It was unadulterated joy and passion in filmmaking.”
Soy Cuba is available here.
Hannah Lack is Film Editor of Dazed & Confused magazine, Literary Editor of AnOther Magazine and Contributing Editor at Nowness.com