Saul Landau and Irving Saraf’s documentary was barely seen when it was first released in 1969 because many U.S. cinemas refused to screen the film. In retrospect, that was a major mistake because this film is not, by any stretch, a propaganda tribute to the Cuban leader. Indeed, the film is frank is detailing how Castro’s revolution fell short of its lofty goals.
The film follows Castro on a tour of Cuba’s eastern provinces. The leader travels from village to village, and he listens to endless complaints by highly vocal residents on the dismal state of transportation, health care and social services. One woman complains that life under Castro is no different than life during the Batista years – the villages remain mired in poverty, no matter who is in charge. But things are not much better in the capital of Havana: the film shows how Cubans wait on ridiculously long lines for heavily rationed food.
Although the Cubans are not shy about sharing their frustration with Castro, they nonetheless show a deep degree of happy familiarity with their leader. Referring to him as “Fidel” instead of “Mr. President” or other official titles, they invite him into their homes for coffee, tweak him about the failings of career politicians, and enjoy a good-natured laugh at his expense when Castro tries (and repeatedly fails) to hit a baseball during an exhibition match.
Throughout the film, Castro is charismatic and eloquent, whether he is offering a very serious lecture on highway construction or when he is waxing nostalgically about his childhood. However, Castro is uncommonly frank about the failings of the revolution in the decade following his rise to power. Most notably, he complains that his regime erroneously overlooked the value of agricultural self-sufficiency, and he speaks at great length about improving Cuba’s cattle population.
The film, however, has a few hiccups. There is a quasi-religious tribute to Ernest “Che” Guevara (no surprise) and a brief visit with some of Cuba’s political prisoners (no one speaks poorly of ill-treatment in Castro’s prisons – again, no surprise). Newsreel footage of the Cuban missile crisis is included, but the filmmakers, curiously, fail to quiz Castro on the depth of Cuban-Soviet relations.
This DVD release is based on a National Film Preservation Foundation restoration of the original 16mm print. The return of this barely-seen film in a proper release makes this one of the year’s best retro rediscoveries.