Fidel Castro has died. Leftist world leaders immediately poured out their heartfelt tributes. The eulogy by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was so comically hagiographic — “Fidel Castro was a larger than life leader who served his people for almost half a century” — that it inspired the hashtag #trudeaueulogies, under which the twitterati have written such jewels as: “Today we mourn the loss of Norman Bates, a family man who was truly defined by his devotion to his mother.”
Of course, Castro was in fact a brutal dictator. Although his atrocities and what he did to once prosperous Cuba were little advertised in movies (just as the atrocities of Stalin and Mao are rarely mentioned), a few very good films were made on the subject.
Most notable of these is Improper Conduct, the devastating Nestor Almendros documentary, which details Castro’s efforts to exterminate gay people in Cuba (he hated gays and considered them unfit for socialism). About it, the New York Times said “The movie’s tone is civilized, but the testimony is as savage as it’s convincing.” Improper Conduct won the Grand Prize at the 12th annual International Human Rights Festival.
Another good film is Before Night Falls, based on the best-selling memoirs of poet and novelist Reinaldo Arenas. It tells the story of his colorful youth in pre-Castro Cuba, his early support for the Cuban revolution and eventual disillusionment with it, his rising career as a writer, and his persecution both as a writer and as a gay man. While this is a story of state oppression, it’s also a story of heroism in the face of oppression, and it’s told, often in Arenas’s own (narrated) words, with that kind of laughter in the face of pain that belongs exclusively to the long-suffering. The telling has wit, not only in words, but incorporated into events. The film is likewise notable for artful cinematography and generally superior acting, including both an Academy Award–nominated performance by Javier Bardem as Arenas, and characteristically creative performances by an almost unrecognizable Johnny Depp in two polar opposite cameo roles: as a macho Cuban prison officer, and as “Bon Bon,” a transvestite.
Bitter Sugar is a drama based on the true story of a Cuban family whose lives were torn apart by Fidel Castro’s implementation of socialism. It has been hailed as offering a remarkably true picture of modern life in Cuba. As Miguel Perez, a Cuban American reviewer wrote: “We Cuban Americans usually end up resigning ourselves to the same saying: El comunismo hay que vivirlo. ‘You have to live under communism’ to truly understand how it feels. If only there was a way, we exiles often ask ourselves, to make our non-Cuban friends experience the degrading repression, hunger, and other difficulties of life in Cuba. [But now there is a film] that answers those questions and fulfills that mission.”
Also noteworthy is a short film (7 minutes) about Armando Valladares, the Cuban poet who was tortured for decades — twenty-two years — in Fidel Castro’s prisons for steadfastly and repeatedly refusing to endorse communism. Over and over again his captors offered to release him, if only he would publicly say that communism was good for Cuba. Despite every manner of threat and brutality, over and over again he refused to make such endorsement. This is a touching and inspiring film of unflinching faith and heroism in the cause of human liberty.