Rediscovered '60s film provides a glimpse of Cuba's architectural modernism

September 7, 2012

Check out the above clip from the 1964 film Soy Cuba.

That astounding, unbroken camera shot is the stuff of cinema legend, to which sequences like the opening scene in Boogie Nights and the nightclub entrance in GoodFellas pay homage. The joint Soviet/Cuban production tells four self-contained stories of Cubans who are oppressed — but who ultimately fighting back against the corrupt, late '50s, pre-Castro (and non-communist) government.

The film ("I am Cuba" in English) was designed to serve as a dramatic reminder of why — in the eyes of the filmmakers — the Castro revolution was needed and, as such, is one of the finest straight propaganda films made. But the movie wasn't much of a hit in the USSR or Cuba and was seldom seen in this country, given the film's anti-American sentiment. Fortunately, Directors Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese rescued the film in 1995 and restored it. (My former Sun-Times colleague Roger Ebert reviewed the film for its 1995 re-release.)

Why talk about this film here? Three of Soy Cuba's stories are set in Havana and use spectacular modern architecture as a backdrop. The above clip shows modernist high rises in the distance before the camera makes its way down the side of the hotel. In other scenes later in the movie, there are stunning concrete and glass buildings with minimalist staircases and fancy punch card facades. Fidel Castro was a proponent of modernism in his early years; the National Art Schools are a prime example.

This is architecture few people in this country have seen — for reasons we all know — despite Cuba being as close to American shores as Milwaukee is to Chicago.

Of course, more Americans will see this architecture as this country's travel bans to Cuba continues to relax in the years to come. But Soy Cuba provides a chance to see it when it was new. The film is available on Netflix and other places.

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