It is a simple enough task to demonize Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. It takes a considerably more artful hand to paint him as a much more complex and nuanced human being. Such is the goal of Saul Landau’s documentary, Fidel. Through the use of archive footage, Landau attempts to uncover a side of the legend that few audiences have seen before. While his intentions are noble and his footage is truly extraordinary, the filmmaker falters in bringing the story to the screen.
Honestly, it feels like the film’s potential is significantly limited by the technical innovations made available to Landau and, what I’d imagine is a considerably minimal crew. It is hardly fair to fault the film for something like this, but given the times we live in now, it would have been nice to see it presented in a more up-to-date format. The archive footage doesn’t exactly speak for itself, nor does it lend itself to a coherent narrative, so it just feels like it should be only part of the puzzle. Fidel could have used more interviews with outsider perspective or political strategists or at least something other than the “slice-of-life” approach that Landau takes. Instead, it feels like watching somebody else’s home movies. Not only are some instances almost uncomfortably intimate, which is shocking given the subject of the documentary, but at a certain point, the inevitable question of, “why am I watching this?” comes into play. For me, the answer is obviously work, but for casual viewers, Fidel isn’t entirely without its charms.
The more personal side of Fidel Castro is… bizarre to say the least. Watching him play baseball with the townspeople brings up a mess of emotions. It’s charming in its own way, but it’s such a strong contrast to the image that is so firmly established in our American consciousness. Landau plays with this notion, but not with enough attention to detail of subtlety to make any serious contribution to the film. That is, perhaps, the largest issue with Fidel. Landau, or at least Cinema Libre Studio, have to be aware of how loaded the name “Fidel Castro” is in modern society, particularly for American audiences. There are subtle winks and nods to the man that Fidel Castro has since become, yet there is little to no attention paid to his transition from idealist to, in essence, dictator. This is where the archive footage proves to be more of a fault than anything else. However, that does not stop the scenes of Castro’s pure idealism from having a sort of nostalgic sadness about them. They’re an invaluable contribution to the finished product, but unfortunately for viewers, they can’t help but raise the question of how could one man change so much? Fidel unfortunately does not have the answers.
On paper, Fidel is an impressive exploration of a dictator’s rise to power. However, its execution, Fidel proves to be little more than mementos of a man’s life with little to no narrative. Landau’s footage is captivating, but ultimately, it isn’t compelling enough to warrant a 95-minute documentary. If the clips had been re-appropriated and placed within a larger framework, perhaps with more structure or defined purpose, Fidel might have worked. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case. All one can do is wonder what could have been.