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Savant Short Review:


2001 / Color / 1:37 pan'n scan / 206 min.
Starring Víctor Huggo Martin, Gael García Bernal, Patricia Velazquez, Cecilia Suárez, Maurice Compte, Margarita Rosa de Francisco, Enrique Arce, José María Yazpik
Cinematography Francesco Varese
Production Designer Brigitte Broch
Film Editor Milton Moses Ginsberg
Original Music John Altman
Written by Stephen Tolkin
Produced by Kevin Cooper, Guy Hibbert, Jose Ludlow and David V. Picker
Directed by David Attwood

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

This television miniseries takes on the story of Fidel Castro and the Cuban revolution, an ambitious and politically sensitive subject hopelessly ensnarled in decades of ideological rancor. The show is rather good, showing Fidel's intransigent idealism before the success of his revolution in largely positive terms, and his intransigent idealism afterwards as basically negative. Since most viewers see the whole subject from a subjective point of view completely dependent on their personal politics, this very educational show is asking for controversy.


Tired and gray, Fidel (Honorato Magaloni) recalls his early years (played by Víctor Huggo Martin). As a lawyer he became convinced that challenging the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista by legal means was hopeless, and organized a failed attempt at insurrection, only to return from exile three years later to sweep the country in a popular revolution. From there on his story is one of limited success: he remains popular and loved, but his newfound Marxist ideals and harshness with those opposed to his personal will are neither the solution for his country or the answer to his dreams.

¡Fidel! is a story with an even harder hill to climb than The Lord of the Rings: everyone aware of the dictator's history has pre-set ideas, and no one interpretation is going to please even a fraction of the audience. The Cuban-American exile population openly boycotted the show after hearing it didn't demonize Fidel; any representation of Castro as anything but a total villain isn't going to cut it with them. With ex-President Carter doing his best to end the vindictive and politically 'easy' persecution of the Cuban island, and President Bush busy inflaming the rhetoric against our 'neighbors to the South', ¡Fidel! should be a very topical subject.  1

The first 3/5 of the show is very well put-together, establishing Castro as a privileged man honestly dedicated to wresting power from Batista. Nobody challenges the fact that Cuba before Castro was a country dedicated to the interests of American corporations and organized crime, and that Havana was little more than a brothel for vacationing Americans. Fidel's buildup of his revolution is well sketched. Like his personal story, it's simplified, but not overly distorted. He's a family man and a womanizer, but his commitment to his cause is sincere and unfailing.

The brutality of Batista's army henchmen is, if anything, underplayed. We get a hint of it when the victorious captain at the Moncada barracks shows Naty Revuelta (Margarita d'Francisco) her brother's eye, freshly torn from his head, to induce her to talk. The fast-moving script touches upon most of the relevant themes but naturally can't hope to go into depth on any of them.

Although it is 'history lite', we do get memorable scenes of military failure, regrouping in Mexico, and Fidel's miraculous initial survival upon reentering Cuba. His calculated manipulation of the press and the public to advance his aims is well-presented, especially a visit by an American journalist who is tricked into thinking Fidel's little force already controls the entire Sierra Maestra.

From then on the show becomes more than just sketchy; it abandons its straight narrative and instead follows the dilution of Fidel's dream through the next 4 decades, as isolated events in his memories. Even the triumphant entrance into Havana is minimized, and quickie snapshots of key events click by like blurred roadsigns. The personal romance angle is dropped, even though we see Fidel's estranged wife on the sidelines at one point, holding their son. Fidel's relationship with his comrade Celia Sanchez (Cecilia Suárez) is never exactly defined, even though all of his other relationships with women seem to be sexual in basis. Loyal officer Huber Matos (Ernesto Godoy) is sacrificed to Fidel's Stalin-like demands of absolute leadership. Che Guevara (Gael García Bernal) exiles himself to Bolivia and failure, when the peasants there don't respond to the call to revolution as they did in Cuba.  2

The sixties' missile crisis goes by in a flash, and from then on the narrative skips years at a jump. Fidel's economic failure is due to his own blundering micromanagement, and his expectation that people will fit into a foolish Marxist mold that thinks lowly workers will toil for the benefit of a collective. The influence of the Russians doesn't get enough screen time, but neither does Castro's transformation of Cuba into an educated, literate nation, with universal basic health care. Constant harrassment by the United States - assassination attempts, planned invasions after the Bay of Pigs fiasco - is identified as the reason for Fidel's continued defiance of the U.S. and his bankrolling of revolutions elsewhere. The Cuban exiles in the US are scarcely mentioned at all.

The key moment in Fidel's story remains unexplained. His sudden decision to become a Marxist-Socialist dictator just happens, and that's that. Fidel arrogantly chose that path because the alternative was to give his hard-won Cuba back to American 'interests'.

The show eventually ends with Fidel staring down the camera and declaring that as long as he breathes he will exist to oppose outside oppression. He's the only one in the Western hemisphere to successfully say 'no' to America, and that is indeed the crux of his character and of Cuba.

Víctor Huggo Martin makes a compelling, softened Castro. The support is excellent, especially the women in his life who have plenty of screen time but whose roles remain undefined: his wife Mirta (Patricia Velazquez), his rich lover Alejandra Gollás (Haydeé Santamaria), and his co-commander and perhaps lover Celia Sanchez. Basically handsome Tony Plana more resembles Ricardo Montalban than the fat, depraved-looking real-life Batista. For a good closeup at what these revolutionaries and despots really looked like, nothing beats the kind of good original footage found in All Day's Cuban Story. One look at the real Batista there, and you know he's a depraved tyrant.

The production is basically well-mounted, falling apart somewhat in the second half as stock footage is used to skirt over the abbreviated history. The color frequently fades out, cueing the use of b&w stock, which never seems to match, but the gimmick isn't that distracting.

Artisan's DVD of ¡Fidel! crams all 206 minutes onto one side of a DVD rather well. The image during the titles and a prologue in modern Havana looks just terrible, with bad encoding, and then the quality improves and stays improved all the way through. The soundtrack makes good use of Latin music without wearing out its welcome.

But the big flaw is the full-frame Pan'n Scan transfer. I don't know if this was letterboxed on HBO, but the picture chops off people so tightly left-to-right that it is obviously cropped from a slightly wider image. The result is that the compositions never look balanced or stable. This might have been an attractive show, but the director's efforts have pretty much been negated.

Pan-Scan seems to be common practice with many mini-series: they're shot as if meant to be letterboxed at 1:66 or so, and then ruined when telecined for television. ¡Fidel! is a bargain at its low price, but as a DVD, it's a badly compromised presentation.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, ¡Fidel! rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Fair
Sound: Good
Supplements: Production notes; Kennedy's Cuban Missile Crisis speech
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 25, 2002


1. Savant doesn't feel comfortable getting any more political than that, in the body of the review, at least. Fidel's harsh dictatorship should be meaningful to Americans as a mirror thrown up to our hypocrisy, when confronted with a nation so close to our shores that would no longer take our economic abuse. The US has been punishing the island for 40 years out of spite that Fidel didn't surrender to our will. 'Liberation' for Cuba just means that our economy, which by its very nature consumes weaker economies for its own benefit, will return the island to the state of most of the rest of Latin America - owned and exploited by outside powers. 'Nuff said ... .

2. Curiously, Gael García Bernal doesn't look very much like Che ... whereas the actor playing Fidel's brother Raúl, in beard and beret, is the spittin' image of the Marxist pinup icon.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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