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Viva! for Showtime's 'Fidel'

Fidel, a two-part Showtime miniseries, proves interesting for its behind-the-scenes looks at the personal and political lives of Fidel Castro.

In particular, we see how Castro himself subverted his reform-minded "people's democracy" into a Communist dictatorship.

Shot on location mostly in Mexico, the project is all the more remarkable because it succeeds with a highly talented, all-Latino cast rather than through star power. Some in the cast have scored in mainstream entertainment, like Tony Plana (as Gen. Fulgencio Batista) and Patricia Velasquez (as Fidel's wife Mirta). But none is a major star to "Anglo" viewers.

By far the most commanding portrayal is Victor Huggo Martin as the title character — a role in which Martin marks his English-language acting debut.

Part 1 opens in 2001, with Castro looking at old photos in his office, pictures that launch the viewer into a flashback to 1949. Even then, Fidel, a clean-shaven 23-year-old, was railing at corruption in Cuban government.

Over the next two years, he marries Mirta and finds others who also want to "bring down Batista" — including Naty Revuelta, a doctor's wife with whom he begins an affair.

In 1953 Castro's small band of 120 rebels attacks an Army barracks. More than half are slain, and Castro is imprisoned.

In prison, Castro mixes up letters to Mirta and to Naty, a gaffe that spurs Mirta to seek a divorce. But his public support grows so strong that Batista must free him after two years.

Castro flees to Mexico, where he meets the like-minded "Che" Guevara. Unfortunately, Gael Garcia Bernal's portrayal fails to convey Che's vaunted charisma.

Castro's revolutionaries return to Cuba, but Batista's forces, tipped off, attack them and claim to have "annihilated" them. Castro escapes to the mountains, where he eventually meets up with other rebels, notably Celia Sanchez (Cecilia Suarez).

As Part 2 begins, Celia's big contribution is persuading The New York Times
to do a front-page interview with Castro.

Soon after Castro gains power in January 1959, he quashes dissent even within his inner circle. When Huber Matos (Ernesto Godoy) objects to the new Communist slant, his reward is to be tried for treason.

Steven Tolkin's screenplay, spanning 40 years and based on two books, crams a lot into four hours, so some major events seem glossed over. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, for example, we get just a brief glimpse at how angrily Castro received the news that the Soviet Union would remove nuclear missiles from Cuba.

Showtime airs the two-part Fidel
at 8 p.m. on Jan. 27 and 28.