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TELEVISION REVIEW

Few insights found in 'Fidel'

The mere thought of Oliver Stone and Fidel Castro face to face on television either makes you run screaming out of the room or cements you in front of the tube in lurid fascination. Imagine the two fabulists, each with his oceanic ego, acting in their very own theater of the absurd. Think Ionesco.

Welcome to "Looking for Fidel." The one-hour offering from HBO is, even for this pair, bizarre and, by any measure, bad. But it occasionally transcends its badness to become addictive.

Consider the scene in which Castro sits by while Stone asks eight Cubans, failed airplane hijackers seeking to escape the regime, to explain their actions. Castro takes notes like a grad student at a seminar, explaining with a straight face that he wants to understand their motives. He urges their lawyers to do the best job possible defending their clients. We later learn that the eight got 30 years to life in prison.

Weeks earlier, in the early spring of 2003, three Cubans were executed for the attempted hijackings of a ferry and a plane. About the same time, Castro's security services rounded up 95 dissidents, 75 of whom received long jail terms. The government explanation, says one dissident: "The fatherland is in danger."

These grisly figures shape the strange history of "Looking For Fidel." Stone originally spent 30 hours with Castro for a documentary called "Commandante" slated for airing last May. It was, according to many who saw it at the Sundance Film Festival, fawning and uncritical. HBO pulled the program before it ran because of the embarrassing gap between Stone's piece and Castro's recent brutal actions, and it told Stone to reinterview Castro with more muscular questions if he intended to get anything on the air. Stone did, gaining another 30 hours with him to create this new film.

In one sense, then, "Looking for Fidel" is the progeny of the earlier effort. Stone does ask nominally pointed questions, but they carry no torque. He never pushes Castro hard. The dictator never gets angry. We hear Stone ask why the three men were executed, without appeals, the day after their trials ended. Castro answers that Cuba was in a virtual state of war at the time, riddled with US-backed troublemakers. We hear Stone ask about the prisoners of conscience in his jails. Castro answers that there are none, that the allegation is a lie. And so forth.

Most noticeable, and shocking for an Oscar-winning director, is the awful visual quality of the program. The jerky camera work seems like the early effort of a first-year film student. The cuts are abrasive and chaotic. The constant stream of translation to and from Spanish and English by a Castro aide makes the dialogue difficult to follow.

"Looking for Fidel" breaks no new ground. It is, at the end of the day, about two men who are past their prime. Castro, all liver spots and what must be a new set of choppers, muses out loud, eyes glazed, about the glorious past in a way that makes you think of King Lear. As for Stone, God only knows.

Sam Allis can be reached at allis@globe.com.

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