Both Burnt by the Sun and I Am Cuba were made by well-established Soviet directors and both vividly depict Soviet delusions, but they’re otherwise dissimilar. The former, set in the ’30s, starts as a sun-dappled holiday in the country but ends under the obliterating shadow of Stalin; the latter, a product of the ’60s, is deliriously overheated from beginning to end. The essential difference is that Sun, which won 1994’s Best Foreign Film Oscar, benefits from post-Soviet hindsight while Cuba is a period document, albeit an exceptionally curious one.
Nikita Mikhalkov is among the best-known Soviet directors to have avoided exile, which suggests a talent for compromise. (Other observers have put it more harshly.) That talent extends to his films, which include the bland A Slave for Love and Dark Eyes but also the more distinctive Oblomov and Close to Eden. Much of Sun is in the mode of the former, but its ending propels it into the territory of the latter.
After a prologue that will only make sense later, the film switches to its principal location, the picturesque dacha of Col. Kotov, a hero of the revolution. As tanks on maneuvers threaten to devastate the local fields, a call goes up for Kotov, the only man in the area with the clout to stop the exercise. (Dynamic yet kindly, with a bushy moustache, Kotov resembles the official propagandists’ portrait of Stalin himself.) Sure enough, once the great man is rousted from his sauna and recognized by the awestruck troops, the tanks quickly retreat.
Considering that it’s the director who plays Kotov, this is a rather self-aggrandizing introduction. Mikhalkov has said he took this prominent role in order to create a more believable relationship between Kotov and his 6-year-old daughter, Nadia, who’s played by the director’s own daughter of the same age and name, and in this he’s succeeded. Whether warbling a song or mocking a Stalinist goon, Nadia’s vivacious Nadia is a charmer.
Indeed, though Kotov has wed a pretty woman half his age, Maroussia (Ingeborga Dapkounaite), the first romance the film reveals is between Kotov and his daughter. On an excursion alone together, Kotov pledges that new Soviet technology will guarantee that Nadia’s feet will always be as soft as they are now; “I adore you,” she replies.
The second romance arrives with the playful Mitia (Oleg Menchikov), who appears unexpectedly after a long absence. Though the extended family greets Mitia exuberantly, Maroussia seems on edge. It’s gradually revealed that Mitia was her first love, and that his forced departure from the country—after he chose the losing side in the revolution—very nearly destroyed her. Mitia is clearly happy to see Maroussia, and she soon warms to him, but it turns out that she’s not the purpose of his visit.
The contrast between Kotov’s bucolic interlude and the horror of Stalin’s imminent purges is suggested by the appearance of the tanks and, later, a gas-attack drill. Both of those intrusions are played principally for laughs, though, so it’s still startling when the film’s tone suddenly shifts dramatically. If the family’s merrymaking is a little too sweet (and too long), it makes what comes next all the more bracing.
Written by Mikhalkov and Roustam Ibraguimbekov, Sun emphasizes the human side of Soviet upheaval, to the point of reducing complex machinations to a simple love triangle. Politically, this is unsatisfying. As drama, however, it’s quite effective; the way the tale moves from idyll to ordeal is more compelling than the course of the director’s other films. Sun may add little to post-Soviet cinema’s ongoing critique of Communist debacles, but it is a significant addition to Mikhalkov’s catalog.
Adeclaration of love from the U.S.S.R.—or at least director Mikhail Kalatozov and co-scenarist Yevgeny Yevtushenko—to the first of many projected Latin American revolutions, I Am Cuba offers a delirious flashback to the expressionism of such Soviet cinematic pioneers as Dziga Vertov and Sergei Eisenstein. Made just after the Cuban Missile Crisis and released in Havana and Moscow in 1964, the film was not a success; it was promptly shelved and didn’t appear in the West until 1992, when it was included in a Telluride Film Festival retrospective of work by the late Kalatozov, who’s best known for 1957’s The Cranes Are Flying. Now bearing the imprimatur of Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese, Cuba is finally in American release.
The project was originally conceived by Yevtushenko during the six months he spent in Cuba in 1960 as a “poetry correspondent.” Upon returning two years later, though, the poet was dismayed by the effects of Fidel Castro’s regime on the lively country he remembered. So he, Kalatozov, and cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky—arguably the film’s true auteur—set out to glorify the revolution rather than its dreary aftereffects.
Cuba is divided into four sections: The first portrays rich capitalist tourists and the poor workers they exploit in Havana; the second, a sugar-cane farmer’s reaction to news that the land he cultivates has been sold to the United Fruit Co.; the third, revolutionary students organizing, protesting, and being martyred; and the last, a peasant’s decision to join the rebels. The war against dictator Fulgencio Batista is ongoing when the film ends, and Castro is never depicted on screen.
Presented with a minimum of dialogue, the thematically linked episodes are anything but naturalistic. Indeed, the film engages in garish ideological burlesque and brazen (if terse) melodrama, and makes something sinister of Hollywood-musical conventions, as when a gang of freewheeling U.S. sailors sing a jingoist tune and then chase a young woman down the street. (Her virtue is safeguarded by a brave, solitary student revolutionary.) Once, American authorities might actually have deemed these vignettes dangerous, but these days their poeticized proletarian sentiments seem merely quaint.
There’s nothing quaint about Urusevsky’s work, however. The directors of One From the Heart and Goodfellas could hardly fail to be impressed by his lengthy, flamboyant tracking shots. The first episode, for example, opens atop the roof of the resort hotel; without a cut, the camera jostles the band, ogles some bathing beauties, swoops astonishingly down a few levels to a pool, and finally goes underwater. This is the film’s most dazzling setup, but there are others that nearly rival it, notably one in which the camera pulls back from newsreel footage of Batista to show that it’s being projected on a drive-in’s screen—one that’s soon firebombed by revolutionaries.
Fluid camera motions are just one of Urusevsky’s tricks. He builds Cuba‘s hallucinatory tone with deep focus, wide-angle lenses, impressionistic collage, filters that turn daytime skies almost black, and dramatic camera placement. Adding to the sense of dislocation is the voice-over, presented in Spanish and Russian, that overlaps in a manner that unconsciously presages sampler-era pop music.
The two urban sequences offer more bold possibilities for Urusevsky’s gambits than do the rural ones, and after the third chapter the 141-minute fantasia is essentially over. Clearly the filmmakers were right to set their film in Batista’s rather than Castro’s Cuba: The world of the decadent bourgeois exploiters is a lot more photogenic than that of the noble rustic peasants. If serving no other purpose, though, that relatively stolid final sequence should allow viewers needed time to regain their equilibrium before re-entering the linear world outside the theater. Cuba‘s politics may be dated, but its visuals are literally dizzying.