Steven Soderbergh’s two-part four-hour biopic Che doesn’t have a gorgeous Antonio Banderas complaining about all the howling hysterical sorrow over the death of Eva Peron. Nor will you see Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s band of disaffected youth rambling through Tokyo all wearing the same iconic Che t-shirt. In fact, as Twitch teammate Kurt Halfyard quipped to me during the intermission after the first two hours, he wasn’t sure he really saw Ernesto “Che” Guevara in Soderbergh’s treatment of one of the world’s most infamous revolutionary heroes. Which is to echo Amy Taubin’s assessment in her Cannes08 dispatch to Film Comment (July/August 2008, p. 55) that—as the film now stands in its festival presentation—Che is "[d]ialetically composed of a pair of nearly mirror-opposite films" that "eschews interiority, focusing instead on the processes of guerilla warfare." As an aggrandized history lesson, a primer in revolutionary philosophy, and a study of the effect of varying environment on guerilla tactics and strategies, these four hours of film sweep along engagingly and—in my estimation—quite brilliantly. Their importance should be a given; though I don’t anticipate Americans will be so generous. The revolution may never truly be televised; but, Soderbergh has done an admirable job of rendering it cinematically.
As Taubin also mentioned, Soderbergh is under pressure “to deliver something a bit more commercial (i.e., half as long)”, which accounts for her concern that this film may never be seen in the United States as we have had the chance to see it at Cannes and, now, Toronto. I elected to watch it in its full four-hour stretch and appreciate the insights that arose from that commitment.
Because I am, after all, a geographically-impaired citizen of the United States of Amnesia, I appreciate that each segment of Che commences with an old-style educational map that patiently situates the viewer in the country that is the respective locale of the film. For Part One, an outline of Cuba appears, resembling a discarded nylon, whose provinces are then delineated, along with the cities key to the Cuban Revolution, and the Sierra Maestra mountain range, whose long history of guerrilla warfare was furthered by its strategic use by Fidel Castro when he returned to Cuba after his exile in Mexico. Castro and the few other survivors from the failed attack on the Moncada Barracks hid out in the Sierra Maestra where they built and expanded the 26th of July Movement that kickstarted the revolution throughout the region. They built up guerrilla columns, and in collaboration with other groups in the central provinces, Escopeteros on the foot hills and plains, and the urban resistance, eventually overthrew Cuba’s corrupt dictator Fulgencio Batista. Che, Part One basically shows how this was done and it’s an inspiring piece of military history, the likes of which we may not see again in any immediate future.
Che, Part One has a somewhat glamorous sheen to it, partly because this phase of Che’s life is more familiar and iconicized than his later efforts in Bolivia. Authentic documentary footage is combined with recreations of Ernesto “Che” Guevara’s initial introduction to Fidel Castro in July 1955 (Fidel’s brother Raul introduced them). Their early conversations revealed and reinforced a mutual commitment to overthrowing Batista’s regime. Their revolutionary efforts systematically began in November 1956. Che’s initial capacity as a doctor and his involvement with the March of the Wounded allowed him to quickly grasp the art of guerrilla warfare. His transition from doctor to commander to revolutionary hero is graphed out in precise detail with an admirable focus on his particular compassion for the sick and the poor and his intolerance of corruption among the troops. The armed struggle of the Cuban revolutionaries is juxtaposed (often to comic effect) with Che’s later address to the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1964 (though these scenes were the first filmed before the recent major renovation of the United Nations). Delivered from the Cuban jungles to the New York press junkets, one can’t help comparing which was more arduous. Clearly it’s a question of wry degree.
In these New York sequences, largely through translated interview voiceover, Che articulates his revolutionary theories confidently. I especially enjoyed his exchange with a U.S. Senator, where Che earnestly thanked him for the Bay of Pigs Invasion, saying nothing motivates a people towards revolution better than a U.S. invasion. His assertion that love is the central tenet of revolution reminded me of Lawrence Durrell’s comment that the words evolution and revolt share the word love spelled backwards. His discussion with one journalist about whether the individual more truthfully expresses human nature is qualified by the responsibility of the individual to society. These are all the great ideas of revolutionary idealism that bear as much truth and relevance today as they did then; though their application has been complicated, if not compromised, in modern times.
This becomes the gist of Che, Part Two—the story Soderbergh really wanted to tell—and to which, in some ways, Part One is merely the glamorous contextual preface. After the success of the Cuban Revolution, and at the height of his fame and power, Che Guevera disappeared, forsaking the luxurious benefits of victory, and emerging incognito in Bolivia, primed to commandeer the Latin American Revolution. Che, Part Two is a much different animal than the first. Its palette is more bleached. Its feel more constrained. It’s not stylized with the first part’s black-and-white flashbacks and is moreorless a straightforward and tense account of the failure of Che’s revolutionary ideals in Bolivia (originally chosen by Castro as the country at the stragegic center of Latin America from which the revolution was to expand). Here the revolution is betrayed by Bolivia’s Communist party, by a terrain vastly different from that of Cuba’s, and by a people too frightened to participate in the process of their own emancipation. Its defeat is further engineered by an American government who had learned about guerrilla warfare from its experience in Vietnam.
Where Che, Part One is joyous and celebratory in its revolutionary spirit and will be a movie most people can, I imagine, like; Part Two is frustrating, sad, and ultimately tragic. It doesn’t feel good at all. It doesn’t even look as colorful as the Cuban sequence. Its palette is bleached and dry. It’s hard to watch the disillusionment of such fervent ideals and the death of the revolution’s key figures one by one. Yet the film suggests that the revolution in Bolivia achieved consciousness precisely through its failure and Che’s martyrdom assured his place as a symbol of idealism and heroism in the hearts of struggling people throughout the world.
Benicio Del Toro was awarded the Prix d'interpretation masculine (or Best Actor) for his performance, and I can’t complain about that. The role took seven years of research and Del Toro brings the expected strength and charisma one expects out of the character of Che Guevara, but he also reveals an asthmatic who survived strenuous conditions out of sheer tenacity and despite debilitating physical odds. If his performance is more iconic than nuanced, it serves the film’s purpose. The remaining cast is a veritable who’s who of Spanish and Latin-American actors. I single out Demián Bichir as the military strategist Fidel Castro; Rodrigo Santoro as Raul Castro; Unax Ugalde as “Little Cowboy”; Joaquim de Almeida as Barrientos (who I just saw the other evening in Guillermo Arriaga’s The Burning Plain); Lou Diamond Phillips as Mario Monje; Franka Polente as Tania; and Catalina Sandino Moreno as Che Guevara’s wife Aleida.
I learned a lot from watching these two films and I have to thank Steven Soderbergh for his invaluable historical contextualizations. I’m not sure anyone else could have pulled this off so genuinely.
Cross-published on The Evening Class.