He remains a symbol of defiance and revolution in a world that’s (supposedly) moved on from his type of gung-ho, guerilla tactics. He’s a hero to some, a demagogue to others, and a thorn in the side of every US administration since Eisenhower. For filmmaker Saul Landau, however, Fidel Castro is a man of many nuances. He’s a powerbroker connected to the people, a liberator looking beyond the basics of Communism to a larger, utopian ideal. After dropping out of graduate school to experience the Cuban revolution first hand, Landau was let back into the country to chronicle the event’s 15 year anniversary. With unprecedented access to his subject and sources, he’s managed to make one of the most intriguing films ever about a would-be world leader.
Part portrait, part propaganda, Fidel! is filled with memorable images: Castro relaxing with pick-up game of baseball; the leader eating in a communal tent with his many military-styled advisers; a group of star struck villagers demanding the man come in for a cup of coffee; a group of school teachers swarming their beloved Fidel, proclaiming his vision for their underdeveloped nation. With newsreel footage of the factual basis for Castro’s rise to power, and the opportunity to witness the country in all its growing pains glory, Landau’s film is a remarkable achievement. It will also definitely chafe those who feel that Castro is a cancer in Latin America, a man who’s mangled Marxism has led an entire people to poverty and almost virtual international isolation.
But this is Landau’s story and he’s sticking with it. As part of the delightful DVD package presented by Provocateur Pictures and Microcinema International, the director is on hand to give a thorough and quite rousing commentary track, and in it, he more or less sets up Castro as one of the key figures of the 20th Century. He points out that, as an idealist, he is one of the few revolutionaries who completely and totally fulfilled the promise of his take-over. Castro wanted Cuba to be its own sovereign nation, unfettered by influence from America (and its corporate clout) and the historical harness of Spain. Landau makes it abundantly clear that Castro did indeed achieve his goals. And since the film finds the country prospering after the entire Bay of Pigs/Missile Crisis debacles of the earlier part of the decade, it appears that victory is sweet indeed.
Taken as a simple statement of Castro circa 1969, Fidel! is a fine effort. It applies a cinema verite approach to the narrative, listening in on the leader and his inner circle as they discuss administrative philosophy, the order of power, and the current goals for the Cuba people. Education (and some would say, indoctrination) are the mandates of the day, with Landau visiting schools to show how the new regime guarantees the ability to learn for all. A great deal of Fidel! focuses on the citizenry and its reaction to their enigmatic chief. Castro never panders. Instead, there is a genuineness about his promises that seem sincere, especially in light of today’s “say anything” political ploys.
But one can’t help feel that a really rosy set of lens were used to manufacture this movie. Political prisoners are shown in a kind of photo-op phoniness that, while possibly true, seems unusually lenient for actual enemies of the state. They even sound sorry for being opposed to Castro. Then we see some dissidents waiting to leave the country. They too seem less angry and more apologetic than we expect. Perhaps times have indeed changed. Maybe the rising tensions in South Florida over US policy toward Cuba and sour memories of the Mariel Boatlift of 1980 taint our opinion of the man and his manner. Whatever it is, there are indeed times when Fidel! feels forced, like jingoism instead of honest social sentiment.
Still, Landau deserves more than credit for compiling such an intimate look. Castro comes off as smart, savvy, creative, undaunted, and very, very passionate. His speeches combine the best kind of conversational persuasion, and his advisors stands as a loyal group of actual thinkers. Some time is spent on absent Friend of the Revolution Ché Guevara and it is clear that Castro still has uncomfortable feelings over the radical’s death (he died a year before this movie was made). Large landscape portraits of Ché are seen all around Cuba, and his name brings the kind of hushed reverence reserved for saints. Yet this section feels incomplete, as if Landau didn’t want to stray too far from the subject at hand (besides, Guevara is a massive subject to undertake).
As part of this exceptional DVD package, we do get the aforementioned director’s commentary, and it may be hard for some Conservative, anti-Communist Republican types to hear. Landau is virtually in love with Fidel Castro, both as a man and as a symbol of American hubris. He points out the sordid CIA attempts to assassinate the leader, and mocks the presumption that Cuba wanted warmer relations with the Soviets. He sets the record straight about some of the scenes, and even offers us a chance to see a short film he made in 1974 – Fidel + Cuba. It’s an eye opener as well. Along with an old interview that repeats some of the concepts from his commentary, and a look at his production diary, Landau is just as important a part of Fidel! as the iconic ideologue himself.
In 2008, it seems almost silly that the US maintains a staunch and sometimes confusing embargo on an island a mere 90 miles from its shores. Certainly there are reasons both politically and morally for such a stand (at least in the eyes of those harboring hatred for the man who dismantled the Batista regime) and history is never helped by only knowing one side of the story. In Fidel! , Saul Landau does us the honorable service of seeing things from the everyday Cuban’s point of view. This is not the story of the upper class or the rich. This is not the tale of the empowered or the embittered. It’s just a look at one man, his sense of national duty, and the foundation for holding onto his newfound power. Five decades later, it remains a remarkable achievement – albeit a controversial and incomplete one.