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A Pesonal Portrait of
a Political Phenomenon

Fidel! A Film by Saul Landau
Cinema Libre Studio
1971 / Color / 1:33 flat full frame / 95 min. / Street Date August 14, 2012 / 19.95
Cinematography Irving Saraf
Film Editor Irving Saraf
Directed by Saul Landau

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

What with the country embroiled in partisan obstinacy and security hysteria over the 9/11 attack, the possibility of normalizing our relationship with Cuba seems permanently back-burnered. It makes no difference that we have open relations with many countries that could be called dictatorships, and have close ties with the world's communist super-power nation. Fidel Castro has been the subject of docus pro and con, including plenty of films from other countries that have little patience with America's decades-long economic blockade. From the point of view of most Americans Fidel is directly opposed to our ideas of personal and political freedom, although one has to admire any leader that successfully expelled American gangsters and robber corporations. If helping Cuba means turning it into yet another country dependent on the U.S. and overrunning it with McDonalds, Starbucks and debt, maybe they're better off without us.

Saul Landau's Fidel! is the best docu portrait of the Cuban leader to date. It follows Fidel on a tour through his country's eastern provinces, allowing him to speak his mind and air his views. Interrupted from time to time by B&W footage from the revolution years, Fidel speaks at length about his country, his childhood, and the guerrilla war. It's not balanced in that Landau is a definite booster and the only viewpoint given is the Cuban one. For a full picture, comparisons with other sources of information are indicated.

Filmmaker Saul Landau left college in 1960 and hitchhiked through Cuba to find out what a revolution was like. One of the Cubans 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 primitive rural 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 limited access to 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. In 1968 Havana is a fully developed international city but the rest of the country is at least a century behind. His revolution is the first government to give anything to the people or improve their standard of living.

Detractors would call the whole movie a Castro photo op, which is indeed the truth. We do believe that the dictator could roam freely among his people without fear of violence, certainly not a given here. Nothing we see appears to be faked, even if his personal tour may not be a common occurrence. It would seem impossible for Castro to run the government in Havana if he spends much time camping out on the road like this.

The film was made in the summer of 1968, two years after 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 living conditions. Just the same, literacy is climbing and Cuba's health care system is just beginning to pay off. We are told that "new clinics 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. 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, in which the dictator makes 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 exit visas. One applicant seems upset to be filmed. We wonder if the Cubans on view will suffer any harassment from the government authorities.

The kids in the schools are clean, bright and motivated, but an enthusiastic speech by an English teacher raises our suspicions - her statements are surely memorized from Communist teachings. Fidel talks about The Revolution needing a population with a new kind of consciousness, and the state seems (in 1968) 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 as they complain 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 beyond clapping them in prisons fit for the 17th century. 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.

Reportedly the subject of a new restoration, Cinema Libre Studio's DVD of Fidel! is an improvement over Microcinema's 2009 disc, although a better encoding helps right off the top. The picture was shot in 16mm under less than optimal conditions. The images can be grainy and of uneven contrast, and the color can be rough as well. Occasional dirt in the gate will place a piece of dark grit on the bottom frame line. But Saul Landau's choice of angles and editing are excellent, with the result that the show is 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 carries Landau's commentary and a short follow-up film he made in 1974, Fidel + Cuba.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Fidel! rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Very Good
Sound: Excellent
Audio: Spanish and English
Subtitles: English (only for Spanish language sections)
Supplements: 1974 film Fidel + Cuba; filmmaker commentary
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 19, 2012

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2012 Glenn Erickson

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