A surprisingly detailed tour of the rise of Fidel Castro, Showtime’s “Fidel” is exceptionally convincing moment to moment and manages to capture the combination of showmanship and sharp intelligence that makes its subject such a fascinating figure. Miniseries loses force in its second half, in large part because supporting characters never emerge from interchangeable blurriness. Also, pic isn’t especially insightful or sophisticated about Castro’s political evolution, preferring a blunt turn from good guy to dictator once he and his guerrilla warriors take power. But still, despite pic’s weaknesses, director David Attwood (“Shot Through the Heart”) has created a work of significant historical sweep, impressively clear and even more impressively believable. A Latino cast mostly unknown in the U.S., headed by a very persuasive Victor Huggo Martin as the cigar-chomping Fidel, gives the film added integrity.
Attwood does a superb job of setting the stage for his story, beginning with a cabbie who picks up a couple of contemporary tourists in Havana and begins telling them jokes that demonstrate the larger-than-life mythology of Fidel Castro. Composer John Altman’s music infuses the sporadic montage sequences with energetic Cuban sounds, helping the film achieve its sense of place.
Cinematographer Checco Varese provides opening images of an old Castro shot from behind, walking down a long hallway and settling in to look at old photos of his guerrilla days. This is a man alone, looking back at his glory days.
Pic’s political point of view is not complicated. First half of the film focuses on Castro’s entry into politics, battling the corrupt government as a sympathetic voice for the underdog. Middle section of the film has him exiled in Mexico (where the film was shot), meeting Che Guevara (Gael Garcia Bernal) and leading a guerrilla war from the mountains of Cuba.
Last third, easily the least convincing, shows Castro quickly turning from democratic advocate into despotic dictator, seeming to rule as if he were still a mountain warrior fighting enemies, betraying once-beloved allies of the revolution and impoverishing a nation while blaming everyone and anyone for the island nation’s problems.
Throughout this, audience is treated to a pretty comprehensive history lesson. It’s also given a character portrait that makes a lot of sense. Martin’s Castro is dashing at the start, a young lawyer committed to doing good for his people and genuinely offended by the lack of respect he believes Cuba receives from the U.S.
After the military takeover of the country by Batista (Tony Plana), Fidel determines to become a fighter, and he’s able to inspire people with his absolute conviction that victory is inevitable, even when his earliest efforts at warfare are met with disaster, such as the failed first attack on army barracks that sent him to jail and set the stage for his movement.
More setbacks can’t derail his plan, even when his forces are reduced to a handful after being attacked upon arriving back in Cuba from Mexico. Showing his talent for myth-making, Castro convinces New York Times reporter Herbert Matthews (Ken Jenkins) that his small band of raggedy rebels is a potentially effective army of hundreds in control of the territory.
Once Castro takes power, it takes barely a scene for him to become anti-democratic, and the screenplay by Stephen Tolkin, based on two different biographies, starts feeling like it’s speaking in shorthand.
What is effective, though, is its take on Castro as having become so enamored with the life of the rebel fighter that he never became a real president. Scenes where bankers come in to meet with Castro’s slovenly pals capture their sense of immaturity, particularly in regard to Che, who’s portrayed as something of an arrogant know-it-all, with a sense of history that only leads him to believe that execution is the answer for everything.
Castro’s betrayal of his friends would be far more effective if we could keep the supporting characters straight, but that’s pretty much impossible with the similarly groomed men. (The production design, by Brigitte Broch, and costumes by Mayes Rubeo are very effective at capturing the aging of Castro and his young followers as they grow beards.) The main turning point after Castro’s takeover comes with the trial of Huber Matos (Ernesto Godoy), who’s jailed for privately expressing a dissenting opinion. Scenes lose some force since character is unrecognizable from his scene earlier, where he saved the revolution by obtaining anti-aircraft missiles from Costa Rica.
Castro’s personal life is given some attention, particularly in the first half. Tolkin and Attwood do an excellent job of depicting his relationships with wife Mirta (Patricia Velasquez) and mistress Naty Revuelta (Margarita d’Francisco) without getting into melodrama.
We do, however, get a strong sense of Castro’s machismo, a quality that seems among the most essential to understanding the tale of a man who came to power because he would never admit defeat, and who became a dictator because of the same trait.