by Mel Valentin
Argentine, physician, memoirist, Marxist, revolutionary, politician, celebrity, and martyr, Ernesto “Che” Guevara has been the subject of books, articles, pop culture paraphernalia (e.g., t-shirts, posters, flags, etc.), and, unsurprisingly, several films, including Walter Salles’ "The Motorcycle Diaries" and now Steven Soderbergh’s ("The Good German," "Solaris," "Ocean’s Eleven," "Traffic," "The Limey," "Out of Sight," "Sex, Lies & Videotape") latest film, "Che," an epic-length biopic based, in part, on Guevara’s “Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War” and divided into two parts: "Che: Part One (The Argentine)" (1956-1959) and "Che: Part Two (Guerilla)") (1966-1967). Some moviegoers will be able to see both films on one night, as part of an old school “road show” with a twenty-minute intermission, while other moviegoers will have to come back a second night (or day) to catch "Part Two" on a movie screen.In Che: Part One (The Argentine), a young, beardless, post [i[Motorcycle Diaries’ Che (Benicio del Toro) meets Fidel Castro (Demián Bichir) and other Cuban exiles, including Fidel’s brother, Raúl (Rodrigo Santoro), in Mexico. There, they discuss Fulgencio Batista’s autocratic rule, the lack of literacy and the presence of abject poverty among peasant farmers, the lack of civil liberties, the ineffectiveness of democratic opposition to Batista, and the need, as they see it, for complete revolution (and not just a coup d’état). Che, eager to put his Marxist beliefs into action, volunteers to join Fidel and Raul when they return to Cuba. In Cuba, Che becomes the acting physician for Castro’s guerillas, but over time, relinquishes his duties as a doctor to become a tactician, teacher, politician, and military leader. Che’s role as a military leader culminates with the siege of Santa Clara in late 1959, one of the final battles that led to the Batista’s ouster.
"Four hours later and we're still left with too many unanswered questions."
Che: Part Two (Guerilla)) jumps ahead roughly five years as Che, unhappy as a Cuban bureaucrat, decides to leave his wife, Aleida March (Catalina Sandino Moreno), and his five children behind to lead the revolutionary struggle in other parts of the world. Che: Part Two (Guerilla)) jumps ahead again, skipping Che’s involvement in revolutionary movements in the Congo and Venezuela, as he prepares for his ill-fated attempt to bring Marxist revolution to Bolivia. A dozen of Che’s Cuban comrades join him in Bolivia. With funding from Castro and other fellow travelers, Che recruits Bolivian peasants to join his makeshift army. As a foreigner, Che and his Cuban-led army face opposition from both the Bolivian peasantry and the Bolivian military led by President René Barrientos (Joaquim de Almeida). What follows next is almost two hours of Che wandering through the Bolivian wilderness, narrowly escaping the Bolivian army’s attempts to capture him (or, in turn, ambushing Bolivian patrols). With special assistance from the CIA, the Bolivian army eventually captures Che and executes him before he can be tried.
Unfortunately, Soderbergh fails to give Che an inner life, either by oversight, an unlikely possibility or choice, because “his” Che didn’t have one (i.e., he lived and breathed Communist ideology). Soderbergh’s Che is a political man of action, ever ready to advance the revolution through deeds or words. Only late in Part Two does Soderbergh gives us an introspective Che, as the Bolivian army tightens the cordon around Che and his men. At most, Che admits to tactical mistakes, but never questions his ideological beliefs or the ill-fated goal to spread Communism to Latin America with Fidel Castro’s support (Bolivia was Castro’s idea). Either way, the Che Soderbergh gives us is a distant, unknowable figure, a figure refracted through almost five decades of accreted mythology.
Ideology, or rather the inflexible adherence to dogmatic ideology, crippled Che. He, like Castro and Castro’s immediate supporters in the Communist Party, saw their fellow Cubans as means to an end, the glorious Cuban Revolution (a revolution that’s still ongoing), not as ends to themselves, a problem with right- or left-leaning ideologies that place the collective above the individual (or to be more specific, individual rights). Without the necessary protections of civil liberties (the Cuban constitution enshrined individual rights, but only symbolically), the Cuban Revolution, while delivering the agrarian reform, education reform and universal healthcare Castro and Che promised failed to safeguard individual rights or create a fair, impartial justice system untainted by political ideology.Che was certainly instrumental in helping to achieve those goals, but he was also responsible for creating and administering an authoritarian regime that quelled political dissidence through physical threats, imprisonment, torture, and in some cases, politically motivated executions. To accept Che, as Soderbergh seems to do, as an exemplary revolutionary figure, one who embodied (and lived) the revolution’s lofty goals while simultaneously omitting the real-world results of Che’s ideological dogmatism is a disservice to the Cubans who rallied to overthrow Batista only to find themselves trading in a military dictatorship for a communist one and the victims of Castro and Che’s policies. Ultimately, Soderbergh succumbs to Che the celebrity revolutionary, leaving a more complete, and ultimately, more truthful representation of Che to another filmmaker.
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originally posted: 01/16/09 04:27:10