★ ★ ★ ★
As a cinematography student, this film and a previous film by director Mikhail Kalatozov, The Cranes are Flying, come up as good reference for viewing complex camera movement and fluidity of direction done right.
A joint Cuban/Soviet production, this film is primarily a propaganda film for socialism in Cuba. Following the Cuban revolution in the early 1960s, the new Cuban government formed a partnership with the USSR for several film productions completed in Cuba. This film was one of those productions and its sole purpose was to chronicle the birth of socialism in Cuba through the revolution. Narratively, the film is shown through a series of vignettes including parts of Batista’s Cuba, the revolution itself and the finality of socialist reign.
Upon initial release, the film was not well-received and, by the time the USSR fell in the early 1990s, the film was largely forgotten. It was through a resurgence of American interest in the techniques used in the film that brought the picture back into the limelight. As mentioned earlier, this film contains some absolutely breathtaking camera work by cinematographer Sergey Urusevsky.
The opening shot at a pool party on a rooftop starts in a crowd, moves up a diving board, down into the water, through the water and back out again. Some complex movement like this in today’s films might not seem so amazing, but in 1964, there was no such thing as a steadicam or other modern conveniences such as digital stabilization and movements. Everything was done handheld with extremely wide lenses and specially rigged for the water sequence. Later in the film, there is a shot where the camera is suspended by a pulley system some 40 feet over a crowd sequence starting from a third or fourth story window. The camera moves over the parade for a solid block or block and a half and into another window to be dismounted from the pulley system and hand held again. Furthermore, in one of the vignettes, there is some amazing infrared black-and-white footage that was shot on loan from the Soviet military.
Kalatozov seemed to prefer movement of the camera at almost all times, and the way he handles the complex movements is almost poetic. In some films, excessive movement would call too much attention to the fourth wall, but with a Kalatozov film it seems to fit perfectly in place. There is really little story here, as the film is more a well-composed slice-of-life. The real beauty of this piece is the exquisite camerawork and precise direction – a feast for the eyes.