Fawning over Fidel

March 28, 2003|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Fidel is blinded by the light of Fidel Castro. But this idolatrous documentary is revealing in spite of itself, as a set of political fans' notes.

Filmmaker Estela Bravo depicts Cuba's dictator as a happy warrior and a secular saint. She turns his extraordinary career into a gospel of anti-colonialism, socialism and Third World resurgence: a Stations of the Hammer and the Sickle with the resurrection of Cuba and the survival of its leader as the happy ending.

She trots, quickly and haphazardly, through what his nemesis President Kennedy would have called a profile in courage. Castro overthrows Batista's corrupt government, then swiftly reforms farming and nationalizes industries. He declares socialism when the U.S. shuns him and withstands the American-supported assault on the Bay of Pigs and numerous CIA assassination attempts. He supports revolutionary movements in Africa and survives the death of the Soviet Union, all the while providing his people with education, health care and sports.

Bravo either ignores his crackdowns on intellectuals and homosexuals and his curtailment of civil liberties or only tacitly acknowledges them as the costs of nation building. She fleetingly depicts Cuba's boat people, the Marielitos, desperately trying to make Miami, but she chalks up the phenomenon solely to the island's depressed economy.

When one of Castro's many unblushing admirers, Alice Walker, bemoans his inability to dance and later compares him to the last redwood left in a stripped forest, you may throw your hands up in disbelief - or at least clap them over your ears. Still, the parade of sometimes-fatuous American political and cultural celebrities who are either interviewed or shown in news footage aptly frame Bravo's best achievement - her study of political fame.

More than a bit of magic has gone into Castro's success. Bravo's archival footage, which borders on the miraculous, includes a shot of a dove landing on his shoulders like Christ's messenger during an epochal state address.

What's crucial, though, to Castro's dominance and longevity, is the personal gusto of his public life. Aside from his astonishing memory, energy and enthusiasm, he has the ability to be himself while also being a larger-than-life Great Red Father to socialists and many progressives beyond his island nation's shores. Bravo isn't afraid to portray his psychological contradictions. He's a keen competitor committed to communism; he's a believer in Marxist process and the long view who, like an actor, can lose himself completely "in the moment."

Castro once told Barbara Walters, "I'm a man that is totally free, that owns my own life." (John Krich called his good novel about Castro A Totally Free Man.) Would Castro say that about his citizens?

Fidel

A documentary by Estela Bravo

Released by First Run Features

Time 91 minutes

Rating Unrated

Sun Score * * 1/2

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