Rediscovered Gems Play Again

Exciting cinematic style drives Russian film on life in Cuba

Confounding the conventional view that the newest movies are the most exciting movies, rediscoveries from bygone years are providing some of this season's most interesting fare.

At the head of the list comes ``I Am Cuba,'' a remarkable 1964 picture that literally defies description.

Belatedly brought to theaters by Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, who have admirable records of digging out overlooked cinematic gems, the movie has an episodic plot about freedom fighters, urban rebels, sugar-cane harvesters, and other figures from Cuban society just before Fidel Castro's revolution ousted the old capitalist regime.

The film meanders from one storyline to another, sometimes pausing long enough to build effective suspense, sometimes moving on before anything of consequence has happened. If its forced nostalgia for Cuban socialism were all it had to offer, it would be little more than a historical curiosity, even if it does boast a loquacious screenplay by Yevgeny Yevtushenko, the legendary Russian poet, and Enrique Pineda Barnet, his respected Cuban counterpart.

What ranks ``I Am Cuba'' among the most thrilling films in recent memory is neither its subject nor its soundtrack, but the astounding cinematic style of Russian director Mikhail Kalatozov, whose pyrotechnics are more imaginative than 95 percent of the stuff Hollywood cranks out with special-effects resources never dreamed of by this comparatively low-tech artist. His camera flies, dives, swoops, and soars, enveloping the viewer in a dazzling cascade of almost hallucinatory visions.

While the content of the shots is often little more than public- relations flack for Cuban-Soviet solidarity, the imagery is so visually transcendent that it lifts the picture far above its literal level, just as a superb musical setting may render the words of a song largely irrelevant.

Open your eyes to ``I Am Cuba,'' and it may be a long time before you see movies in the same way again. A big vote of thanks is due to Milestone Films for teaming with Scorsese and Coppola to bring this hidden masterpiece to light.

A better-known rediscovery on the circuit is ``The Wild Bunch,'' directed by Sam Peckinpah in 1969, and long notorious for escalating film violence to new levels at a time when Hollywood's long-honored censorship rules were breaking down. Peckinpah always insisted the movie's climactic shoot-out was meant to turn audiences away from violence by translating it into stylized slow motion, but his subsequent career - from the darkly brilliant ``Straw Dogs'' to the stupidly sanguinary ``Convoy,'' among other pictures - revealed a fascination with bloodshed that many moviegoers were all too eager to share.

Warner Bros.' new reissue of ``The Wild Bunch,'' restoring several minutes of footage that were trimmed over the director's protest, reconfirms my long-held opinion that it's neither a transgressive triumph on one hand nor an orgy of immorality on the other. It's just an unusually ambitious western with a rambling story, few well-developed characters, and a macho attitude that's more troubling for its misogyny than for its itchy trigger finger.

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