MicroCinema // 1971 // 85 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Ben Saylor (Retired) // April 8th, 2009
A personal portrait of a political phenomenon.
In May 1968, Saul Landau was working in San Francisco public television when he received a call from Dr. Rene Vallejo, physician and confidante of Fidel Castro. The call was to invite Landau to Cuba to film a documentary about Castro. The resulting film, Fidel!, is a fascinating portrait of one of the 20th century's most interesting (not to mention controversial) historical figures.
Much of Fidel! follows the Cuban leader during a weeklong tour of the country's Oriente Province as he speaks with citizens and listens to their complaints about the country. We see him inspecting a factory and a construction site where a school is being built. We see him addressing a huge crowd on the 15th anniversary of the revolution. At one point, he even takes a turn at bat (and later on the pitcher's mound) during a game of baseball.
Landau intersperses other footage with the touring scenes, including clips from the guerilla war with Fulgencio Batista's forces. Newsreel footage is also included to lend context to the film. Editor Irving Saraf (who also served as cinematographer) deserves a mention here for his skillful job in weaving the various bits and pieces of the film together into a coherent and well-paced work.
The Castro that emerges from Landau's film is, politics aside, a charismatic and compelling personality. He gets right in there with the residents of the Oriente Province, who call him by his first name and touch him with the familiarity of a buddy. Castro jokes with them but also listens intently when they tell him of their problems. As a speaker, Castro is very articulate and direct with his language, and one of the benefits of watching him in this film is that we are not subjected to the full-length speeches he is known for giving. In seeing Castro discuss the revolution and what it means, I was reminded of the voiceover narration from Ernesto "Che" Guevara (played by Benicio Del Toro) in Steven Soderbergh's Che. (Side note: Watching Fidel! also gave me a greater appreciation for Demián Bichir's terrific performance as Castro in Soderbergh's film, to which Fidel! is an excellent companion piece.)
Going into Fidel!, I was worried that the film would be little more than propaganda, considering that it was made with Castro's consent and cooperation. Much of the film however, simply presents Castro and his views with a sort of take it or leave it attitude. I suppose some viewers could quibble about the scant runtime spent on such events as the Bay of Pigs invasion and the missile crisis, but these events also took place several years before this film was made, and Landau's focus is on the man and his country, and not so much their relationship with the United States.
Landau is also not afraid to allow disenchanted Cuban citizens to speak their minds. One interviewee tells Landau, "Instead of going forward, we're going backwards." Several others express their dissatisfaction with Castro's regime. Landau even visits a camp housing political prisoners and interviews some of the inmates.
Unsurprisingly, the technical quality of Fidel! isn't the best; the image is faded and has many flaws (the film was shot on 16mm), and the sound isn't exactly overpowering either. Nonetheless, this presentation is decent given what Provocateur and Microcinema International likely had to work with. The film is in Spanish, with English subtitles burned on the screen.
For extras, there is a feature commentary with Landau and film critic Hannah Eaves, wherein the latter interviews the former. Much of the conversation is about Castro and Cuba in general, although the process of making the film is discussed as well. Landau's own views on Castro become clearer over the commentary, and, without belaboring the point, do not display the relative objectivity of the film. Up next is a 1974 short film called "Fidel + Cuba" that runs about 24 minutes. Landau is one of four credited filmmakers here, and the film consists largely of additional footage of Castro mingling with Cubans along with an interview the leader gives to an off-camera questioner. While a little more dry than the main event due to the interview clips, "Fidel + Cuba" is nonetheless a fine companion piece to Fidel!. Also included is an 11-minute interview with Landau, where he talks about the film and gives his opinions about Castro and Cuba today. An insert is also included with the DVD with an excerpt from Landau's production diary.
For anyone interested in Fidel Castro and Cuban history, Fidel! is a must-see, and Provocateur and Microcinema's DVD presentation does a solid job of enhancing the feature.
While the man himself continues to divide opinion, Fidel! is not
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Spanish)
Running Time: 85 Minutes
Release Year: 1971
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Short Film