“If we had known that this picture existed back in 1964, maybe cinema would have been different now”- this is how Martin Scorsese reacted to Mikhail Kalatozov’s (Kalatozishvili) I Am Cuba, after discovering it in the mid-1990s. The Hollywood master claimed the film to be a genuine hidden treasure, referring to Kalatozov’s storytelling technique and unique cinematic language, adding that “it puts to shame anything we’re doing today”.

I am Cuba. 1964. Director- Mikhail Kalatozishvili (Kalatozov) 

I am Cuba. 1964. Director- Mikhail Kalatozishvili (Kalatozov) 

Renowned for his daring approach to filmmaking, Mikhail Kalatozov redefined the possibilities of visual storytelling, leaving an ineradicable mark in the history of cinema. The techniques he used back in the 1950s and 60s, with his longtime collaborator, cinematographer Sergey Urusevsky, are unique; they stand out, even by today’s standards. His cinematic style is marked by several distinct characteristics that set his work apart and continue to captivate audiences decades after their release.

Mikhail Kalatozishvili (Kalatozov) 1903-1973

Cinematographer Sergey Urusevsky on the set of I am Cuba. 1964

Kalatozov remains the only filmmaker in Soviet and Post-soviet cinema to have won the Palme D’or –the main prize at the Cannes film festival. He received the award for the war drama The Cranes Are Flying in 1958.

Born in 1903 in Tbilisi, Georgia, Mikheil Kalatozsihvili (later Kalatozov) studied economics before deciding to seek work in cinema. He began his film career at the height of the silent film era, trying out several occupations in the industry: He started as a chauffeur at the Georgian Film Studio, then glued the film rolls together, after which he became an editor, starred in several movies as an actor, worked as a cameraman, a second director, and eventually became an independent filmmaker. His directorial debut was Salt for Svanetia (Jim Svante), filmed in 1930, which became a milestone in both his career and in the history of Georgian and Soviet cinema.

Kalatozishvili had a profound interest in storytelling and a keen eye for visual aesthetics from the very beginning of his career. His early years were influenced by the revolutionary changes of the social and political system in the Soviet Union, as well as innovative ideas of the European avant-garde movements. Nevertheless, he had very strong local roots, inspiring him to reflect the rich and diverse Georgian culture in his works. His Salt for Svanetia, which can be described as a docufiction, tells the story of the hard life of the Svans, a sub-ethnic group in the remote mountainous region of Svaneti. The film is an ethnographic portrait of the culture and daily life of the locals there, their struggle for basic needs (suffering from lack of salt) and the adversity of isolation from civilization. 

Kalatozishvili was lucky to have David Kakabadze as the director of photography for this film, a renowned Georgian modernist artist with whom he shared the same vision and interests in visual arts. They broke all artistic and technical boundaries, and tried numerous experiments in the filming process. Salt for Svanetia combines the realism of documentary film, expressionism of avant-garde and metaphors of poetry. Despite showing the Soviets building roads to Svaneti and ending the isolation of the region at the end of the, Kalatozov was criticized for excessive attention to form and not enough representation of the heroic role of the Soviet government. This was a time when socialist realism was decreed to be the official art of the Soviet Union, and all authors had to obey the centralized rules and forms. Kalatozishvili, however, did not wish to do so. He got the chance to make a second film in Georgia: Nail in the Boot, 1932, which follows Soviet soldier and his unit's defeat on maneuvers because of the poor quality of their boots. During the trial, the soldier claims that blame must be shared with the boot makers, who are also members of the tribunal. The film was criticized again by the Soviet establishment for formalism and for its skeptical stance towards the Soviet institutions and collective action. Therefore, both films were shelved and Kalatozishvili was prohibited from directing his own projects for a number of years. He was offered an administrative post at Goskinprom, the main film studio in Tbilisi, and even headed it for a time, before moving to Russia. In the mid-1930s, when the Stalinist repressions began, and letters of denunciation became common practice, Kalatozishvili was forced to leave his home country, as the number of his enemies grew. He was married to Zhanna Valachi, a daughter of the Italian Consul, with whom he had a son, Giorgi, born in 1929. He left without his family, unable even to say goodbye due to safety concerns.

Jim Svante (Salt for Svanetia). 1930. Director- Mikhail Kalatozishvili (Kalatozov) 

Jim Svante (Salt for Svanetia). 1930. Director- Mikhail Kalatozishvili (Kalatozov) 

From 1939, he continued making films in Russia under the name of Mikhail Kalatozov. He had to change his cinematic style and make Stalinist, epic movies for a time, so as to survive the repressions. Courage (1939) and Valery Chkalov (1941) implemented all the principles and rules of the mainstream Soviet Stalinist art form, contrary to his previous works in Georgia. Despite that, even these movies were in a way different and amusing, and in which one can still catch glimpses of Kalatozov’s signature style. 

In the final stage of World War II, when the United States and Soviet Union were still allies, Kalatozov was sent to Hollywood to study the film industry there and establish professional relations between the two countries. He spent several years in the States, but little is known about that period or his activities there. The only thing we know from his family is that he would send back professional tips, made friends with Charlie Chaplin, and brought Chaplin’s films to the Soviet Union for the first time. 

After returning, Kalatozov made several films, again sticking to the style of social realism. These were: Conspiracy of the Doomed (1950), Hostile Whirlwinds (1953), True Friends (1954) and The First Echelon (1955). But his major success arrived with the iconic The Cranes Are Flying (1957) - a visually stunning and emotionally touching war drama that gained international acclaim and brought the director the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival. In terms of visual esthetics and innovative technique, it was a revival of Salt for Svanetia, a film that had defined Kalatozov’s signature style. 

The Cranes Are Flying, a visionary masterpiece with cinematographer Sergey Urusevsky’s fascinating shots and a poignant portrayal of love and loss, showcased Kalatozov's ability to evoke profound emotions through the language of cinema. However, the director was not allowed to attend the Cannes Film Festival to claim his award for it, with Soviet officials declaring him too ill, while he was in fact in very good health.

Tatian Samoilova in Mikhail Kalatozishvili's ( Kalatozov) Cranes are Flying. 1957

Tatiana Samoilova and Aleksey Batalov in Mikhail Kalatozishvili's ( Kalatozov) Cranes are Flying. 1957

Tatiana Samoilova in  Mikhail Kalatozishvili's (Kalatozov) Cranes are Flying. 1957

Following the success of the film, Kalatozov continued to push artistic boundaries with experiments: He made Letter Never Sent (1960) using long, uncut shots and a subjective camera yet again, in doing so reflecting a daring exploration of human survival amidst the wilderness of Siberia. The film's breathtaking visuals and emotional depiction of beauty and the brutality of nature reinforced Kalatozov's reputation as a director unafraid to experiment with form and content.

The director explores emotional turmoil and the complex dynamics between individuals and the environment. His characters crave progress, justice and freedom. Kalatozov maintained these concepts and ideals in his later works.

In 1963, Kalatozov started working on another major experiment, I Am Cuba (Soy Cuba) - a poetic masterpiece with an exceptional technique of visual storytelling. The film was a co-production of Cuba and the Soviet Union and was meant to praise the Cuban Revolution and Fidel Castro. The movie portrays the island's turbulent political endeavors and everyday lives of the Cuban people, being set during the pre-revolutionary era. The screenplay, by Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko and Cuban novelist Enrique Pineda Barnet, depicts the last days of Batista’s reign in 1959 and the start of the revolution. The film is not just an exploration of historical events, but demonstrates a deep understanding of human struggle and empathy for the people in times of oppression and inequality. Kalatozov's camera wanders freely, capturing the essence of Cuban life with unparalleled compassion and depth. But the main merit of the film is probably its unique visionary storytelling technique, which is still exceptional in the history of world cinema. Through long, uncut takes, dynamic camera movements and captivating composition, Urusevsky transforms every frame into a canvas and creates magnificent images. 

Raúl García in I am Cuba (1964) by Mikhail Kalatozishvili (Kalatozov)

Yet, the film was not well received by either the Soviets or the Cubans, nor, less surprisingly, by the Americans. Each country had its reason to shelve the film: In Cuba, it was criticized for showing a stereotypical view of Cubans and not showing enough of the American brutality. Some even say that the officials didn’t like that the film almost totally excluded Fidel Castro as a person from the plot. The Soviets considered the film insufficiently revolutionary, and even sympathetic to the lives of the bourgeoisie, while the Americans naturally didn’t like their portrayal as oppressors and greedy capitalists. In reality, the movie generalized the problem of oppression and colonialism, making it applicable to any imperialist country, tyrant ruler or powerful group of elites who try to make a fortune by exploiting others. 

I Am Cuba was almost completely forgotten until its rediscovery thirty years later by American filmmakers Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola. They saw the movie and acquired distribution rights from Mosfilm Studios. The film had its American premiere in 1995, followed by a 4K restoration in 2019. Despite its initial commercial failure, I Am Cuba has since gained recognition as a cult classic.

Mikhail Kalatozov’s final work was The Red Tent- a Soviet and Italian co-production based on the real events of Umberto Nobile’s disastrous Arctic expedition and the mission to rescue the survivors. Nobile, a well-known Italian aeronautical engineer and Arctic explorer, set out on the expedition in 1928 with his team, but their airship Italia failed after ice formed on it. The film follows the commander, flashing back to the events and seeing the "ghosts" of those involved in the expedition appearing in his memories to assist him in determining his guilt in the affair. Among others, the film starred international icons Sean Connery, Claudia Cardinale and Peter Finch. It also featured spectacularly beautiful Arctic footage and an exciting personal story of survival, making the movie both compelling and thrilling, and once again proving Kalatozov’s inimitable skills and power of storytelling. 

After premiering the film in Italy and Moscow, Kalatozov brought The Red Tent to his home country, Georgia, during his first visit in years. The film premiered in Tbilisi in 1970, and proved to be among the most emotional and nostalgic screenings for the director.

Kalatozov died of a heart attack in Moscow in 1973. His legacy and artistic contributions continue to influence contemporary filmmakers and cinephiles, inspiring them to explore the limits of visual storytelling.