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Fidel (DVD Review)

3 Sep, 2012 By: Mike Clark

Cinema Libre
$19.95 DVD
Not rated.

As documentaries on despots go, Saul Landaus’s Fidel isn’t up to the gold standard of General Idi Amin Dada, the 1974 Barbet Schroeder portrait that did, after all, provide shots of the former Ugandan president’s uncountable children by uncountable wives, hungry crocodiles observing peaceful river cruises from the sidelines and the hilarious scene where Amin cheats in a swim race (very much in the Sacha Baron Cohen mode). The latter film is also available in a Criterion edition, whose visual cleanness substantially surpasses this said-to-have-been restored Castro equivalent, whose color has deteriorated to the unfortunate point where the processing looks as if the kid who sells you Pampers and Cheetos at your local CVS gave it a quick run through the photo machine. Still, Landau’s achievement does make a rather fascinating view and deserves more praise than what it merits for simply existing.

The filmmaker/activist shot it in 1968 for a 1969 copyright, ’69 being the year press materials say it aired on PBS (the Miami station passed — ha!), though IMDb.com lists it as 1971. All this tends to make Fidel sound like an obscurity that doesn’t get a whole lot of distribution these days, though I can’t imagine any political junkie who wouldn’t want to see it. Landau and his crew spent a week with Castro in the kind of great outdoors that is likely akin to where he lived and plotted his Cuban revolution — all as the dictator turned on charm that, at least superficially, seems a lot more natural than what we see from a lot of American politicians who get sound-byted every night on cable’s political news shows. We even see Castro in a pickup baseball game that’s worth the price of admission (I wouldn’t have wanted to be the ump), playing into the apparent myth that this lifetime bat/glove enthusiast rated a pitching try-out with the Washington Senators in the ’40s. Just think how history would have been altered had this been true — and then successful. The man who caused so much mischief could have been around for the ’57 filming of Damn Yankees in DC and picked up some hitting tips from team star Roy Sievers.

Instead, here we are not quite a decade after the Batista overthrow where, to the eye, things have not quite worked out. Landau doesn’t editorialize — and as an old lefty, probably never would — but this is a case where some points get made simply by turning on the camera. When Castro, never dressing-for-success, journeys out among “the people” to hear voiced requests and complaints, there always seems to be someone who’s either grousing about or resigned to the fact that some dirt road hasn’t been built to facilitate basic services (like maybe getting to a hospital in an emergency). Later, the leader laments the fact that despite the construction of elaborate (for Cuba) facilities to promote artistic expression, the country really hasn’t generated many artists of stature.

Still, a lot of the people (especially some of the old-timers who lived through Batista) seem generally upbeat and contented. And, to my surprise (did Landau have access or what?), there’s a section on political dissidents, some of whom have been imprisoned and some who are seen preparing a move to Miami. One doesn’t get the sense that Castro, his health issues aside, would be as generous today greenlighting any follow-up documentary, as compelling as that would be. But this release, which includes a 23-minute featurette (“Cuba and Fidel”) and lots of illuminating newsreel footage in the main event, is still a remarkable surprise — even though we have to endure a dreary performance of something called “The Ballad of Che Guevara,” which has never attained pick-to-click status, then or now.

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