By John Geluardi
Over the weekend, I had the opportunity to see a special screening of Stephen Soderbergh’s epic movie, Che. Usually my stunted attention span makes it tough to sit through Pee Wee Herman clips on YouTube, but this film was so engaging I was riveted to the screen for the entire four hours.
The movie, which is in Spanish, is a sprawling epic that follows Argentine Marxist, Ernesto “Che” Guevara, played by Benicio del Toro, through the rugged mountains of Cuba and Bolivia during two revolutionary war campaigns.
To make a four-hour film in the era of gnat-like attention spans, Soderbergh is clearly as bold - and perhaps crazy - as Guevara and Cuban exile Fidel Castro were in 1956 when they boarded a leaky boat in Mexico with 81 men, a few weapons and an ambitious plan to overthrow the military dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. But Soderbergh succeeded in making a film that will be fascinating for the legions of Guevara admirers, social reformers, military historians and people who like to hike - the vast majority of scenes are of guerilla fighters making their way on foot through rugged mountain terrain, lush valleys and dense cloud forests.
Che opens in theaters in January as two movies, part one: The Argentine and part two: Guerilla. Each movie will require separate admissions. The movies have been making the rounds of film festivals and del Toro has already won the actor prize at the Cannes Film Festival for his depiction of Guevara.
Millions of people are familiar with Guevara’s iconographic photo, which was taken by Cuban photojournalist, Alberto Korda in 1960. But the problem with iconographic images, is they allow people to read into them personality traits, moral convictions and motives that may not exist. In the case of Guevara visage, the poetic image deified him as a symbol of radical chic and it is perhaps the most reproduced image in modern history. It has been printed, silkscreened, embroidered, sculpted, digitalized and tattooed. As a symbol, the image seems to magically appear anywhere in the world where there is political discontent, turmoil or conflict.
But only a small percentage of people are aware of Guevara’s background or his pivotal role in the Cuban revolution first as a medic and later as a commandant. Soderbergh’s film animates Guevara’s two-dimensional image and carefully depicts his role as a revolutionary soldier, but he purposely falls short of giving us a full picture of who Guevara was.
The Argentine starts with Guevara meeting with the exiled revolutionary Fidel Castro in Mexico, the rise of the Cuban revolution in the La Sierra Maestra, a vast mountain range in the south of Cuba and finally the overthrow of Batista’s government.
The Argentine establishes Guevara as a talented guerilla strategist and stern disciplinarian who rarely let up on the Guerilla fighters under his command. The movie depicts a Guevara who had little compunction in dealing out the ultimate punishment to deserters who tarnished the morale authority of the revolutionary effort. It also hints at a tendency to be too idealistic with a nod toward self righteousness, which made him reluctant to compromise.
Perhaps to keep the character sympathetic, The Argentine stops short of depicting Guevara’s post revolution role as commander of the Cabana Fortress. While he was in charge of the notorious military prison, he authorized the execution of hundreds of alleged war criminals, traitors and former members of Batista’s secret police.
The second film, Guerilla, tells the story of Guevara’s undoing, which was in part caused by his own hubris. Guevara wrote a book on guerilla warfare in which he promotes the “foco theory” of revolution. The theory contends that a small band of fighters can ignite a popular revolutionary uprising against by winning early victories against oppressive forces. The theory worked in Cuba where a group of 82 fighters was able to rely on widespread disenchantment with Batista, but in other conflicts the foco theory proved to be tragically flawed.
In Guerilla has Guevara quits his comfortable position in the new Cuban government and sneaks into Bolivia where he plans to export a Cuban-styled revolution (the film does not depict Guevara’s failed attempt to start a revolutionary war in Congo-Kinshasa in 1965). However, he has a hard time gaining support from Bolivia’s communist party and, more importantly, the peasants in the rugged Bolivian mountains. Instead of the bold march through Cuba’s La Sierra Maestra, the Bolivian campaign is a story of poor planning, constant demoralization, running from the CIA-backed Bolivian military and finally Guevara’s capture and execution.
While both films closely follow Guevara – he’s in just about every scene – I didn’t leave the theater with an understanding of who he was. The films only has snippets of Guevara’s personal life, which included two marriages and fathering of six children. In The Argentine, Guevara has a close relationship with a female guide, but the relationship is never clearly defined though its sexual nature is hinted at in one scene in which the guide feeds Guevara a strawberry while he’s driving a jeep (in reality, Guevara divorced his first wife after the revolution to marry the guide, Aleida March, with whom he had been living for more than a year).
In an interview with the LA Times, Soderbergh says he purposely avoided getting into Guevara’s head. "I was making a mental list of all the things I didn't want to do," Soderbergh says. "I didn't want to have the scene where the guy goes, 'Why do they call you Che?' Or his hat flies off in a battle and somebody offers him a beret. I just didn't want to do that stuff."
So Soderbergh doesn’t attempt to answer lingering questions about Guevara’s revolutionary motivations. Was he consumed and compelled by the suffering of the masses? Or was he an egotist who preferred the notoriety won in armed battle to being a gray bureaucrat carrying out the numbing issues of running a government? Or did he simply have a death wish?
Because Soderbergh doesn’t attempt to define Guevara’s motivations, ultimately the film is like Korda’s enigmatic photograph; it doesn’t tell us who Guevara was exactly, but we sure enjoy trying to figure him out.