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With: Vlasta Vrana (narrator), Fidel Castro, Muhammad Ali, Harry Belafonte, Angela Davis, Elián González, Nelson Mandela, Ted Turner, Alice Walker
Written by: n/a
Directed by: Estela Bravo
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Language: English, Spanish, with English subtitles
Running Time: 91
Date: 08/02/2001
IMDB

Fidel (2001)

2 Stars (out of 4)

Chill, Castro

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Anyone born in this country during the last 40 years has been raised and trained to hate Cuban president/dictator Fidel Castro, even if most of us probably don't know why.

It probably began as a Communist thing; at one point most Americans were more afraid of Communists than they were of high places or the dark. But soon after it was the Bay of Pigs thing that we couldn't forget or forgive.

It's high time now for a serious journalistic exploration, a film that addresses our country's hatred and answers to that and other issues. Fidel, which opens today at the Roxie for a week's run, is not that film.

Instead, Fidel offers a completely one-sided view of Castro and his life and career. It's a gleaming love poem that has no business calling itself a documentary. It doesn't answer anything; it spends its 90 minutes with "Castro is great." "Castro is still great." "Oh, and by the way, did we mention that Castro is great?" Questions of why and how never come into play.

It no more explores Castro's true psyche than Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will (1934) explores Hitler's. Both films are propaganda pieces, but Riefenstahl's film at least has a stunning, poetic filmic sense to oppose Fidel's routine parade of archival footage and talking heads.

Filmmaker Estela Bravo -- a personal friend of Castro's -- probably attempted to make a blanket statement of love meant to counter the United States' blanket statement of hatred. But swinging from irrationalism on one side all the way over to irrationalism on the other side is useless, other than to launch heated -- and equally useless -- arguments.

Bravo interviews such intelligent and rational speakers as Angela Davis and Alice Walker who talk about things like Castro's presence. You can't help but think that anything negative they might have said was cut out.

In one scene journalist Mike Wallace attempts to ask Castro something seemingly important, but the audio is difficult to hear and Bravo cuts around the questioning before anything controversial comes out -- ending the scene with Wallace smiling and laughing.

According to other sources, during one of his New York visits, Castro threw a hissy fit when President Eisenhower refused to meet with him and sent Vice President Nixon instead. But Fidel almost makes you feel sorry for the poor dictator because he was snubbed. We see footage of him meeting with Nixon and behaving himself like a gentleman.

Bravo also uses footage of Castro meeting and posing with the likes of Muhammad Ali, Jack Nicholson, Jack Lemmon, Ted Turner and author Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who claims that Castro reads and edits his manuscripts before they're published.

But you can feel the filmmaker practically hugging herself when she digs up an old Edward R. Murrow interview during which Castro brings out his young son and a puppy (!) for his American viewers.

Other documentaries can be labeled as one-sided and biased in one direction, but at least films like The Wonderful Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl (1993) -- another look at one of our favorite villains -- manage to compile a vivid portrait of the subject, with its many sides, inconsistencies and passions intact. Errol Morris' The Thin Blue Line and Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine are also biased docs, but they're both based on solid journalism, asking and answering challenging questions as they go.

Fidel winds down with an interview with filmmaker Sydney Pollack, who asks us why we can't forgive this guy if we've forgiven most of our other enemies from the past several decades? It's a good point, and one that I'd be willing to listen to. But instead, Fidel made me even more suspicious.

If the portrait has to be this squeaky-clean, making Castro look like a living Santa Claus, what does he have to hide?

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