Cinema Libre // 2004 // 60 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // May 14th, 2011
Oliver Stone goes head-to-head with Fidel Castro
It's obvious that somewhere along the way, Oliver Stone left his heart on Cuban shores. He's obsessed with JFK (who arguably set the tone for most American involvement with Cuba during the Bay of Pigs fiasco), remade Scarface with a Cuban protagonist, and threw Fidel Castro into his film about South American leaders despite Fidel's location a great distance from South America. In fact, it was Stone's reflection on Fidel that provided the most poignant moment in South of the Border, as the director compares the embattled Cuban leader to Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea. For Stone, the revolution was the fish that Fidel brought back, but a fish that was so hopelessly ravaged that it made the trip seem pointless. Whatever his apparent sympathies for Castro, in Looking for Fidel he sits down with the man to ask some very hard questions. The result is an interesting look at the passions of both Stone and Castro.
The interviews included here were conducted against the historical backdrop of the execution of three Cuban citizens for hijacking a ferry to America. After a seven-day trial, the men were executed. A few months later, Stone went to Cuba to interview Castro, dissidents, prisoners, and their families. These interviews are combined with archival footage to provide a portrait of Fidel and the country he seems to have almost singlehandedly created.
In many ways, Looking for Fidel is a more successful picture than South of the Border, mainly because it is much more modest. Rather than taking a road-trip structure and zipping past half a dozen leaders, here Stone has the time to focus and interact with Fidel. The result is a shorter (only 60 minutes) and more focused film.
Cuba as a country, and Fidel as a leader have been major sources of contention for Americans for over half a century, so it would be foolish to think that one film could entangle the man from the myth. In fact it will probably remain an impossibility because Fidel Castro is one of the premiere mythmakers of the twentieth century. Stone makes the wise move of not taking this myth head-on. He doesn't try to sycophantically support Fidel's vision as "moral chief" of Cuba, nor does he explicitly try to deconstruct the myth by constantly attacking Fidel's statements. Instead he asks logical, intelligent, probing questions about Fidel's actions and intentions. Consequently, Fidel emerges as a master not just of oration, but of dialogue. For instance, when questioned about his treatment of prisoners, he points out how many of the prisoners of the United States confined in Guantanamo Bay have been allowed visitation by their families (that would be none). Not all of his answers are U.S.-centric, but they are all as adept at putting Cuba and himself in the best light.
This wouldn't be an effective documentary about Fidel without dissenting voices, and Stone is well aware of this fact. He also interviews those who have no reason to stick with the party line, including dissidents, prisoners, and their families. A different view of Fidel emerges from these subjects, a view more in keeping with the American picture of Fidel as an iron dictator who imprison citizens at a whim and will brook no dissent.
The truth, the documentary ultimately seems to say, is somewhere in between Fidel's self-aggrandizing rhetoric and the scorn heap on him by political dissidents. There's no denying that Castro has increased health care and literacy, just as there is no denying that he often resorted to violence to achieve those laudable goals.
Whatever the merits of the documentary, there's little to recommend this DVD as such. The 1.85:1 transfer is non-anamorphic, which just seems silly at this point in the technology lifecycle. It looks pretty good for a non-anamorphic transfer, with vibrant colors and strong black levels, but it's hardly great. The stereo soundtrack keeps the interviews audible, and since they're mostly in a mixture of English and Spanish, subtitles are provided. Sadly, there are no extras.
As a documentary, Looking for Fidel gets high marks. It's smart and balanced, and doesn't overstay its welcome. In fact, the most negative thing I can say about it is the lazy "Looking for..." cliché in the title. The DVD, however, isn't so great. If it had been included as an extra on the South of the Border release it would have been a welcome extra. Non-anamorphically enhanced and all by its lonesome, the documentary feels slight for a $19.99 MSRP. Those with an interest in Cuban history should certainly rent this disc, but only those (like teachers) who plan on showing it a lot to others should bother buying it.
Whatever Castro's faults, Looking for Fidel is not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Cinema Libre
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 60 Minutes
Release Year: 2004
MPAA Rating: Not Rated