April 3, 2009 § Leave a Comment
Saul Landau’s 1969 documentary “Fidel!” takes the viewer into a world that is not only lost but quite unknown. It’s a largely uncritical portrait of Cuban revolutionary leader Castro as he goes about his day, allowing him to rattle off the Gospel According to Fidel and the cameras to take in the reality of Cuba 10 years after the revolution.
Americans older than me can probably conjure up memories of Castro as a scary, unknown quantity — a forest guerilla attacking the solid forces of big business and American interests — but for many my age, he was a hat, a beard and a cigar that added up to something frightening.
Or, at least, we were told it added up to something frightening, and it seemed so, since Americans weren’t allowed to go to Cuba. It was that bad — we couldn’t even step on its soil. Or buy its cigars. In the 1970s, this put Cuba on the same level as scary East Germany — the epitome of the mysterious bleakness that communism caused on a society.
Decades later, it’s a far more complicated picture — Cuba is a place populated by real people and has its good and bad. After years of representation by the expatriates in Florida, a more measured view of the country has come into play for many Americans.
Landau’s film certainly doesn’t examine any of the larger questions. Instead, it allows Castro to lead the crew around on a charming site visit that gives viewers the greatest hits of Cuba at the moment in time. It’s a struggling country, trying to tie its resources and keep its people on track as they forge to a future of education and progress that is part of a national collective.
The real importance of the film is its unusual access to Castro himself. Not only does Landau and his crew get to follow him as he checks in on collective farms, building projects and baseball games, they get to hang around for his breakfast, his strategy meetings and indulge in picking his brain for some extended monologues in regard to his philosophy of rule. With a twinkle in his eye, the revolutionary often reveals himself as intelligent and charming, if fairly intense.
And if the film threatens to drift toward one-sided celebration, Landau includes scores of scenes with a dissatisfied citizenry complaining about conditions and services to Castro’s face. He also gets to talk to some political prisoners who gripe about their sentences. There’s plenty of surprise dissent in here, which makes this a valuable timepiece, capturing what became of the legend after the revolution and the Russian missiles.
It’s an unapologetic and extremely unique window into a person and life cut off from so many Americans — mandatory viewing for anyone seeking out a ring-side seat to history, or just a clear-headed examination of the realities of a collective society.