For American filmmakers, it seems the Cuban Revolution is endlessly cinematic, a historical moment as teeming with mythic figures and cool martial fashions as the Star Wars galaxy. Movies from Woody Allen’s Bananas to Steven Soderbergh’s Che revel in the spectacle of cigars, Batista-era decadence, hillside guerrillas, Castro painter’s caps and Che berets. Saul Landau’s 1971 documentary Fidel! is no different; it’s a pretty concise 95 minute digest of all the revolution’s greatest hits. But Fidel! stands out for also offering a vivid glimpse of the realities beyond revolutionary rhetoric and American propaganda.
Touring the Cuban countryside, Castro confers with the peasants he meant to liberate 15 years prior. They are respectful of their leader but don’t hesitate to air grievances about money and infrastructure problems. Castro seems to bristle at extensive criticism but keeps a casual, friendly demeanor. Not wise to throw one’s weight around while American cameras are rolling. In ’71, he is still clearly intoxicated by revolutionary visions, speaking to the filmmakers with the grin of a proud football father gloating over (and embellishing) his son’s achievements. Making a speech memorializing Ernesto “Che” Guevara, he exhorts a crowd of thousands as if the war were still on.
Which, in many ways, it was. 1971 was the year Castro’s regime jailed the poet Heberto Padilla and his wife for “subversive writing.” And the following year, Castro would tour internationally, ramping up to support various Communist regimes and resistance movements on a scale Che only dreamed of during his failed ’67 Bolivian campaign. All this after a decade spent fending off CIA-orchestrated invasions and assassination attempts.
The filmmakers visit Cuban political prisoners who are candid about their treatment, stating some disturbing facts about their arrests. Castro defends political incarceration as the best method of “rehabilitating” counter-revolutionaries rather than punishing them. For him, it’s all a matter of security. In some cases, the re-education seems to be washing brains quite efficiently: A middle-aged prisoner doesn’t make a big fuss about his years behind bars, noting that he’s treated tolerably and allowed to visit family for weeks at a time. A high school girl recites government platitudes with the wide open expression of a much younger child. Or a cult member.
Fidel! gives exiles, prisoners, patriots and El Presidente himself roughly equal time, providing context mainly through newsreel footage and a sense of the filmmaker’s own position through artsy montages. The latter don’t put forward a political stance so much as celebrate the spectacle of an era recently gone by (the late 1950’s/early 1960’s period of resistance, overthrow and socialist makeover), while the former captures the lingering fog of nostalgia for that time — and the way it shrouds ’71 Castro as heavily as his cigar smoke. That doesn’t mean the leader comes off as out of touch, a soldier slumming as a bureaucrat. Actually, the most revealing moment in Fidel! is his sober estimation of the deficit between “social democratic” ambition and a populace hobbled by a history of colonial underdevelopment. He knows that, absent wealth, that gap’s best hope of closing the gap is the sense of purposeful solidarity that his speeches instill in poor people.