On the Roadshow with Che
The revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara is back on the road once more. He returns not on a motorcycle or a small yacht, but on the silver screen. Che, played by Benicio del Toro, opened in late December for a special Oscar-qualifying run in New York and Los Angeles. Director Steven Soderbergh’s two-part film, "The Argentine" and "The Guerrilla," is largely historically faithful to Che at his most revolutionary and alive. Though the film is well over four hours long and entirely in Spanish, the general intrigue of the chief protagonist is enough to command the audience’s attention.
Part one is the story of Che’s first venture into guerrilla warfare in a fight to the death against the island’s dictator, Flugencio Batista. Focused on the struggle in the mountainside, "The Argentine" is told with accompanying black and white scenes from Che’s December 11, 1964 address to the United Nations, along with interviews and flashbacks of his conversations in Mexico with a young, arrogant exiled Cuban lawyer Fidel Castro. Though the focus of part one is disciplined in its attentiveness to Che, the film introduces the audience to all the principle players in the watershed revolution—Raul Castro, Vilma Espin, Celia Sanchez, and Aleida March (Che’s future wife), and masterful portraits of Fidel Castro (Demian Bichir) and Camilo Cienfuegos (Santiago Cabrera). Del Toro, who bears a striking resemblance to Che, won Best Actor in Cannes for a role he said he’d never imagined taking on.
With such a portrayal in mind, "The Argentine," is perhaps the most unromantic rendering of one the most romanticized figures in the history of the world. The story of Che as a guerrilla fighter is lionized for the decision to leave the comforts of civilian life behind to fight for one’s ideals. In part one we see the daily ins and outs of guerrilla warfare. We see the Argentine-born revolutionary engaged in skirmishes, giving medical treatment to peasants, teaching them mathematics, harshly disciplining his subordinates as a comandante, and suffering from crippling asthma. The pace quickens as Che’s most definitive victory is retold when his column helps derail a train with military supplies for Batista’s men in Santa Clara on December 29, 1958. With that blow, the revolution is essentially won, and part one comes to a close—oddly, without the scenes of jubilation in the streets of Havana.
Part two, "The Guerrilla," opens with Bichir as Fidel skillfully recreating the historic televised speech Castro gave as he read a private letter from Che renouncing his Cuban citizenship to participate in armed struggle abroad. The film skips Che’s activities in the Congo and arrives in 1966 with preparations for a plot to hatch revolution in Bolivia. A disguised Che readies himself to depart from his family. Few emotions are displayed save for a moment of silent hand-holding with his wife. Once in Bolivia, the scene is quite different than in Cuba. The greenery of the Sierra Maestra is replaced with the autumnal shrubbery of the Bolivian lowlands. The new cast of characters, including Mario Monje, Tania, Regis Debray, Ciro Bustos, Inti, and Coco Peredo are introduced. Lou Diamond Phillips, portraying Monje, the Bolivian Communist Party leader, elicited laughter from Latino audience members who still see him as La Bamba’s Ritchie Valens.
"The Guerrilla," like part one, largely remains faithful to history. Monje is shown to be non-cooperative in supporting the armed struggle. Tania, Ciro Bustos, and French philosopher Regis Debray fail Guevara in his attempt to transform South America from its heart in Bolivia. The peasantry, who were essential in the Cuban revolution, do not join Guevara’s National Liberation Army en masse or at all. Benecio del Toro transmits a frustrated revolutionary whose asthma is crippling, whose temperament is faltering, and who is ultimately defeated. The death of Che is the most emotionally gripping part of "The Guerrilla." In history, his demise always provokes solemn reflection with the footage of Che lying dead with eyes agape. In retelling the moment, Soderbergh elected to forgo that searing imagery and some of the most gripping dialogue as well. Gone is the political conversation between a captured Che and a Bolivian school teacher in La Higuera, as is the image of a drunken soldier who trembles to execute him before Che bursts out, "Shoot coward."
Despite those omissions, Soderbergh skillfully crafts an emotional crescendo in his epic. With Mercedes Sosa singing in the background, Che is taken out in a stretcher covered with an Andean blanket to be transported in a helicopter to Vallegrande. Che’s dream of a united Latin America free from capitalism comes to an end, as does the film.
By mostly adhering to pages of Che’s diaries, Soderbergh illustrates the guerrilla through his own eyes. If Che were alive, he would probably enjoy this cinematic portrayal of his life more than anyone else, as such life-or-death moments of intense human solidarity were his peak experiences. However, for audiences who crave a complex political and emotional rendering of the man behind the myth, Soderbergh’s Che will leave them with a sense that something is missing. Guevara’s years as a statesperson are almost entirely omitted, as is a deep and more controversial examination of his core Marxist ideals. The filmmakers avoided any serious shades of criticism with their by-the-book or, in this case, by-the-diary approach.
In the end, even a four and a-half hour film of Che Guevara’s attempts at armed revolution in Latin America is insufficient. The task of fully assessing this 20th century icon of rebellion is seemingly impossible. Soderbergh’s Che is a historically accurate retelling of Guevara’s life in the Cuban Revolution and attempted revolution in Bolivia. Soderbergh’s offering, which joins the multitude of documentaries and the numerous literary treatments of Guevara, points to the one word best fit to describe the life of Che: voluminous.
Gabriel San Roman co-produces "Uprising Radio" heard on Pacifica stations KPFK Los Angeles, KPFA Berkeley, and KPFT in Houston. He is currently writing a play based on the first wife of Che Guevara, Hilda Gadea, for the Santa Ana-based Breath of Fire Latina Theater Company.