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A Film by Saul Landau

1971 / Color / 1:33 flat full frame / 95 min. / Street Date February 24, 2009 / 24.95
Cinematography Irving Saraf
Film Editor Irving Saraf
Directed by Saul Landau

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

It's perhaps an appropriate time for the 1971 documentary Fidel! to be released; the normalization of relations between Cuba and the U.S. probably may not rank high in the list of gnawing problems faced by the new administration, but it's important nonetheless. Fidel Castro has been the subject of docus pro and con, including plenty of films from other countries that have never understood America's decades-long economic blockade. Fidel! simply follows Fidel on a tour through his country's eastern provinces. Interrupted from time to time by B&W footage from before the revolution, Fidel speaks at length about his country, his childhood, and the guerrilla war.

Filmmaker Saul Landau left college in 1960 and hitchhiked through Cuba to find out what a revolution was like. One of the cars giving him a ride belonged to Fidel's doctor, revolutionary leader Rene Vallejo. The doctor answered Landau's questions and formed a friendship; in 1968 Landau was invited back to make his documentary.

Shot in rough 16mm color, Fidel! accompanies the revolutionary leader over rough roads as he makes personal contact with the Cuban campesinos. The bearded, cigar-smoking leader gets a warm reception at every stop. Fidel talks to his people one-on-one in relaxed conversations laced with jokes: "Your cows only give five liters of milk? Those are really underdeveloped cows, man!"

Castro's main speaking topic is a road under construction, although we see no work in progress. The vast majority of rural Cubans must use mud paths and unreliable bus transportation; people sometimes have no way of getting medical aid. Fidel's motorcade consists of 4-wheel drive vehicles that have difficulty crossing creeks and climbing hills. He tells us that there are really two Cubas. Havana is a fully developed international city while the rest of the country is at least a century behind. His revolution is the first 20th century government to give anything to the people or improve their standard of living.

The film was made in the summer of 1968, two years after the Che Guevara was killed in Bolivia. Fidel's Cuba is already in fiscal trouble. His campaigns to increase agricultural production haven't reached their goals and there simply aren't enough resources to improve conditions in the country. Just the same, literacy is climbing and his country's health care system is just beginning to pay off. We are told that "new hospitals are already scattered through the mountains".

Fidel's popularity and charisma are obvious. He stops off to eat, chat, and even play baseball. The size of his entourage is not shown and not much is visible in the way of security. Nobody seems concerned by the possibility of assassination. Castro's speeches burst with slogans and optimism, but Landau's interviews bring out a more thoughtful man. This isn't the sarcastic Castro of 60 Minutes interviews, making fun of Dan Rather's simplistic questions. Fidel's stories of his childhood tell of gross inequities both economic and racial.

Landau's cameras also show another side of Cuba. We see citizens forming up for long food lines. A song tries to put a positive spin on the food shortages but the people look unhappy just the same. Another group of Cubans waits nervously on line to apply for visas to leave the country. One face seems upset to be filmed, and we wonder if these applicants will suffer any harassment from the government authorities.

The kids in the schools are clean, bright and motivated, but some of what they say raises our suspicions. The students chosen for interviews offer statements that seem memorized from Communist teachings. Fidel talks about The Revolution needing a population with a new kind of consciousness, and the state seems to be actively instilling a specific set of values. The cultural-political indoctrination isn't much different than the messages that bombard young Americans, except that under Castro dissent is officially discouraged. The camera records one set of parents complaining about a school curriculum too concerned with revolutionary dogma.

Landau also conducts several interviews in a camp for political prisoners. Fidel doesn't know any other way to handle men arrested for counterrevolutionary crimes. The early years of the revolution were wracked with subversion, sabotage, assassination attempts and invasions by Cuban exiles and the U.S. government. What we don't see in the movie are any Russians, although a Soviet ship is present in Havana harbor and Fidel sometimes travels in a Russian helicopter.

Provocateur and Microcinema's DVD of Fidel! is a fine encoding of a movie filmed in 16mm and probably transferred from a print. The images are grainy and contrasty, and the color can be rough as well. But the camerawork and editing are excellent; it's a thorough historical document of an important piece of 20th century history. Most of the audio is in clearly recorded Spanish, with accurate subtitles. The Cuban source music heard on the journey adds to the entertainment value.

The disc is generous with its extras: a new commentary & interview with Saul Landau and a short follow-up film he made in 1974, Fidel + Cuba. A folded insert contains an excerpt from Saul Landau's filming diary, where we learn that his crew was made to wait for weeks before Fidel was ready to begin his inspection tour of the island.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Fidel! rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Good
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: commentary and interview with Saul Landau, short subject Fidel + Cuba;, text filming diary excerpts.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: February 3, 2009

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2009 Glenn Erickson

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