Saul Landau's 1971 documentary, Fidel!, covers, not surprisingly, Fidel Castro's day to day life and how he interacted with the basic populace of Cuba a few years after the revolution. Shot with a small crew using 16mm cameras in 1969, it provides a rare and intimate glimpse into one of history's most confounding figures and allows him, in his own words, to discuss politics and socialism with the common people he was touring around the country meeting with.
Landau had been to Cuba before - in fact he mentions that he dropped out of graduate school a decade or so before making this film specifically so that he could travel to Cuba and watch the revolution unfold. It was during this time that he met a man named Rene Vallejo, who became, in Landau's words 'Castro's doctor and confidante.' It was Vallejo who called Landau in 1969 and told him to bring his crew to Cuba as Castro was ready to allow a documentary to be made about him. The crew arrived, and was then put on hold, waiting seven weeks before being granted and audience with the man. That said, once Castro and Landau's team did connect, they were allowed unprecedented access to them as they accompanied him around the country. Along the way, Castro discusses his childhood, talks about politics and social injustice and about the glory of the revolution. Landau contrasts some of this optimism with footage of impoverish Cuban's standing in line for much needed food. Interviews with school children show some hope but you can't help but wonder if these kids were simply performing for the cameras and delivering a well rehearsed speech rather than offering free and open thoughts of their own.
There is some truly remarkable footage captured here. Not only do we get the chance to see Castro meet with simple farmers and the like but we also see him delivering some incredibly enthusiastic speeches, we see him talking about the importance of Marxist theory and we see him unwinding with a game of baseball. Throughout all of this, regardless of the formality or informality of the event, you can't help but fall for the man's natural charisma. He demonstrates personal warmth and a genuine sense of humor here that many of us would likely never think to associate with a man of his stature and you definitely get the impression that he cares very deeply for the Cuban people. In fact, Castro spends much of the film talking about how important it is that the government improve roadways and the overall standard of living for the population of Cuba's remote rural areas (though we don't actually ever see anything being done about this).
In between the bits of footage that he and his crew shot, Landau integrates a wealth of black and white stock footage from the Cuban Film Archives that interjects some interesting pre-revolutionary war footage that helps to depict the differences between the Cuba of the fifties versus the Cuba of the late sixties. It's interesting to see Castro's bravado in full swing here knowing full well that the two years he'd been in charge at this point in history hadn't really seen any massive improvements. He notes that hospitals have been built but the Cuban economy and infrastructure seemingly remained very similar to the pre-revolutionary times, leading you to wonder just how much of a difference this interesting and charming man had really made.
While there's very little attention paid to the outside forces that were at play during this time, both Soviet and American, Fidel! is never the less a fascinating portrait of a fascinating man. Say what you will about Castro and his politics, it's pretty hard to deny that he had a huge impact on world politics and Landau's film does a fine job of documenting an important time in his country's history.
The 1.33.1 fullframe image presents the film in its original aspect ratio. This was originally shot on 16mm film stock under less than perfect conditions so there are times when the film looks a little bit on the rough side, but for the most part it's never less than watchable. Unfortunately the image is interlaced, which is an annoyance, but color reproduction isn't bad, even if at times it's a bit faded, and there aren't any obvious problems with edge enhancement or mpeg compression artifacts. Some scenes are a little bit on the soft side but this can be attributed to the source material rather than the encoding job. All in all, the movie is a bit on the rough side, visually speaking, but it's perfectly watchable here.
The Dolby Digital Mono sound mix is on par with the video quality in that there are some spots that are a bit rough. Minor background hiss and the occasional pop can be heard on the soundtrack but aside from that there's little to complain about. The levels are properly balanced and the forced English subtitles are easy to read and free of any typographical errors.
The extra features start off with a commentary track from the film's director, Saul Landau. This is a pretty interesting track that allows Landau to talk about what it was like making this film on location in Cuba during a pretty tumultuous time in that country's history. He speaks about his subject with quite a bit of authority, detailing Castro's biographical history as the film plays out and doing a fine job of putting everything into a welcome context. A female moderator keeps Landau talking more often than not, though there are a few spots where he goes quiet leading to some silent bits. That said, this is definitely a track worth listening to, if only for Landau's stories about being in Cuba and some of his experiences there with the locals and with hallucinogenic substances! Landau also talks about what footage was used with permission from the Cuban Film Archives and what footage is his own. All in all, this is very interesting stuff and it compliments the feature very nicely.
From there, be sure to check out Landua's 1974 short film, Fidel + Cuba (24:00). Taken from a tape source, it's not in the best of shape but it's a nice follow up to Fidel and while it covers some of the same ground, it contains some really impressive footage of the country and its leader at work. Also included as an Interview With Saul Landau (11:36) which was originally produced by Link TV in 2007. Here Landau discusses making the film, his motives and how he feels about its subject. The commentary covers a lot of this as well but Landau's an interesting man and his discussion he's well worth listening to.
Rounding out the extras are excerpts from Landau's production diary (provided as an insert booklet inside the keepcase), trailers for a couple of other Provocateur DVDs, menus and chapter selection.
While the transfer and audio show their age and source limitations, Fidel! is never the less a fascinating portrait of an enigmatic historical figure. The commentary and extras offer further insight and help to round out this package nicely. History buffs and political documentary fans will want to check this one out. Recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.