“But revolution means that we have to be prepared to sacrifice everything. Everyone of us has to give up his own private dreams and desires.”
In 1959, Cuban dictator Batista lost his grip on power and fled to the Dominican Republic after a rebel movement led by Fidel Castro ousted his regime. Castro’s new government seemed precarious at times in its early years, but despite expectations to the contrary, has remained in power for over 40 years. During that time, we have seen a U.S. trade embargo, the Bay of Pigs fiasco, the Cuban Missile Crisis, various assassination attempts, the demise of the Soviet Communist regime, and the presence of no less than ten different U.S. Presidents in office; yet Castro carries on. Longevity does not breed popularity necessarily, however, for Castro has clearly lost the support of many of the ordinary working people he once claimed to represent. A trip through the Cuban countryside would soon confirm that. A recent made-for-cable film entitled Fidel takes us through the life of Castro and that film is now available on DVD from Artisan.
The events surrounding the life of Fidel Castro from the time of his youth as a lawyer in Havana, through his involvement with the revolution that swept Batista from power in 1959, and up to the present day are chronicled.
If you’re like me, you have a general knowledge of the events in and concerning Cuba that have occurred during the past half century. A detailed understanding of how Castro’s rebel movement got started and finally succeeded is something else, however, never mind a more in-depth knowledge of events in the country since Castro took power. A film such as Fidel with almost three and a half hours at its disposal should be able to fill such gaps quite adequately, if done properly. Unfortunately, Fidel only manages to complete half of the job.
That half, which consumes about two hours of screen time, is the part of the story covering the decade that culminates in the 1959 seizing of power. The events of the 1950s are very effectively presented. They go into considerable detail on how Castro first became involved with dissidents agitating against Batista’s regime and then gradually began to exert influence until he became recognized as the movement’s leader. The abortive raid on Batista’s garrison at Santiago, guerrilla training in Mexico, the involvement of Che Guevara, the return to Cuba, and the gradual build-up of power and recognition both domestically and abroad as Castro and his supporters spread their influence from their base in the mountains are all evocatively presented. The focus, however, is always on Castro — how he orchestrates events, the central role he maintains in all activities, his relationships with his comrades, and his personal reactions to successes and failures. In this way, we not only understand the sequence of events, but how Castro shaped them and was himself affected by them.
After spending more than half of its playing time to get us to 1959, however, the film then tries to cram the events of the next 40-odd years into an hour and a half and the result is very disappointing compared to what has gone before. Much of the time (at least it seems that way) is spent on board meetings of the new government where the rebels attempt to deal with government policy and actions. Some of that would have been fine, but it’s overdone to the point of boredom and annoyance. Key events of the new regime’s first decade are little more than touched on and we learn nothing more than the generalities we’re all already familiar with. When a well-known event is covered — such as the Cuban Missile Crisis — Castro is shown as little more than a dupe of the Soviets, rather than a really active participant. Castro’s last 25 years are pretty well omitted altogether. Of course, one might conclude that events of much of the recent years of the Castro regime would show Castro in a rather poor light, and that perhaps didn’t suit the filmmakers’ purpose. In any event, the overall result is an unbalanced portrait that is basically pro-Castro and therefore leaning more to propaganda than history.
Fidel does benefit from a fine cast. Standing out is the work of Victor Huggo Martin, a Mexican actor who makes his English language feature film debut playing the title character. Gael Garcia Bernal (who will be familiar to those who’ve seen Amores Perros) is a memorable Che Guevara and Maurice Compte clicks as Castro’s brother, Raul. Less persuasive is Tony Plana as Batista. All the actors look less interested in the second half (or else the script just makes them seem so to the viewer). Director Stephen Tolkin keeps things moving along nicely in the first half and creates a nice effect blending colour sequences into black and white at times to create a newsreel feel of reality. He too seems to lose his inspiration to the script in the second half, however.
Speaking of uninspiring, that pretty well sums up Artisan’s DVD release. The film is presented full frame in accord with its television release. The image transfer is workmanlike at best. Darker scenes frequently suffer from graininess and marked loss of shadow detail. Many daytime scenes are very clear and crisp, but occasionally, grain intrudes there too. A Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo track provides a satisfactory transcription of the mainly dialogue-driven film. There are no subtitles although closed captioning is offered.
Particularly disappointing are the supplements. We get some cast biographies that are rather hard to read (white text on a sort of gray background). The text of John F. Kennedy’s speech on the Cuban Missile Crisis is similarly presented. There are no production notes (contrary to what is suggested on the back cover of the disc) that I was able to find.
Fidel is a film that begins with immense promise, but ultimately fails because it does not give a balanced view of Castro’s regime. In its first half, it provides the sort of information that one would like to have on a subject that is not well known to many people and does so in an entertaining manner. Unfortunately, as with so many revolutions, once the main objective is achieved, the follow-through leaves much to be desired. Artisan’s DVD presentation doesn’t help. Video and audio are workable, but certainly nothing to enhance the film experience. The supplementary material represents a real missed opportunity. At best, Fidel is worth a rental, but just to see the first half.