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Fidel! - Movie Review - 1969/2012

A Lasting Profile of Fidel Castro

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Fidel! - Movie Review - 1969/2012

Fidel! Poster Art

Cinema Libre

A Lasting Profile of Fidel Castro

Saul Landau's Fidel!, a revealing and cinematic profile of Cuban leader Fidel Castro, is a documentary classic. Originally released in 1969, the film uses original 16 mm footage shot by the director during a week long encounter with Castro, when he was invited by the leader to accompany him on a jeep tour of Cuba's eastern mountains region. The road trip took place just nine years after Castro took power in Cuba, and his revolutionary program was embraced by the Cuban people throughout the island nation, but simultaneously vilified by international powers -- especially the U.S. -- and Cubans living abroad.

During the journey, Castro stops at small towns, farm compounds and rural military bases to engage and bond with the Cuban people. He visits the pre-school he attended, enjoys a game of baseball with a group of local men, converses with Cuban elders and plays with Cuban babies.

While socializing and charming his constituents, Fidel also listens to and addresses citizens' concerns about a wide range of problematic public issues, including pressing concerns about regional isolation due to poor road conditions and limited means of transportation, and the negative impact from those conditions on the distribution of food and other essentials.

Unprecedented Access

For the film, Castro gave Landau full and unprecedented access, allowing the filmmaker to shoot inside his tent, and capture those private and reflective moments that reveal unexpected aspects of Fidel's personality, qualities that are simply not evident in his public appearances.

Landau also includes Castro's on camera commentaries, sequences during which Castro offers advice to political activists, other guerrilla leaders and insurgents elsewhere in the Third World, and coverage of Castro's speech on the 15th anniversary of his attack on Fort Moncada which marked the beginning of the Revolution.

Additional sequences show Fidel surrounded by his close advisors, and there is a good deal of refection about Che Guevara and his death, which had occurred just one year before this documentary was shot.

Capturing Context

In the finished film, Landau sets his week-long interview with Fidel into context by mixing his handheld footage with rare and fascinating archival footage gleaned from Cuban sources, including pre-revolutionary scenes of Cuba during Batista's dictatorship, images of Che Guevara, interviews with political prisoners and rarely seen footage of the Bay of Pigs invasion.

History of the Film

Fidel! is a fascinating film not only because of its subject, but also because there has been such a strong reaction to it. From 1969, the year of its completion, to its most recent rerelease, there have been attempts -- some of them violent -- to block it from being seen. In 1970, the film was to have its theatrical premiere in New York at the Fifth Avenue Cinema, but the theater was bombed. Subsequently, the premiere was set to take place at the Haymarket Theatre in Los Angeles, but that theater was destroyed by an arson fire that destroyed the day before the film was to debut. The attacks worked. Many theaters across the nation refused to show the film because their owners and managers feared violent retaliation. As a result, the only cities where Fidel! had a theatrical run were San Francisco (the filmmakers hometown) and Berkeley, California.

When the film was broadcast on PBS stations across the nation (except for the PBS station in Miami, which deferred to the city's exiled Cuban population and did not schedule a showing for Fidel!), a bomb was thrown through a window at NYC's WNET station during the broadcast.

Preserving History

Recently, concerns for the preservation of the film, which was showing signs of deterioration and loss of color, lead to the selection of Fidel! for a complete restoration by the National Film Preservation Foundation. The restoration proposal was made by the University of California Riverside's (UCR) Department of Special Collections & Archives. The fully restored version of Fidel! will be available on DVD and VOD platforms on August 14, 2012. The DVD has appealing extras, including an interview with the director and a 23-minute short directed by Saul Landau with exclusive footage of Castro shot by Richard Pearce.

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Film Details:

  • Title: Fidel!
  • Director: Saul Landau
  • U.S. Theatrical Release Date: 1969
  • US.Broadcast Premiere: 1971
  • DVD Release Date: August 14, 2012
  • Running Time: 95 mins.
  • Parents Advisory: Advisory for content
  • Location: Cuba
  • Language: English, Spanish with English subtitles
  • Distribution Company: Cinema Libre
  • Trailer

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