January 23, 2009

On the Roadshow with Che

Soderbergh’s epic biopic recounts the life of one of the twentieth century’s most controversial figures

By Gabriel San Roman

The eternal revolutionary nomad Ernesto “Che” Guevara is back on the road once more. The immense historical figure returns not on a motorcycle, nor a small, undersized yacht headed for the shores of an oversized history, but on the silver screen.

The massive two-part four hour and twenty-two minute epic biopic of the Argentine-born communist as played by actor Benecio del Toro opened last weekend for a special roadshow Oscar qualifying run in New York and Los Angeles. Director Steven Soderbergh’s two films, “The Argentine,” and “The Guerrilla,” combined as one for the one-week only roadshow with an intermission in between, are largely historically faithful renditions of Che at his most revolutionary and alive; in the rural countryside armed and fighting for his Marxist convictions. Long though the films — which are respectfully entirely in Spanish — may be, the pace of storyline and the general intrigue of the chief protagonist are enough to steadily command the audience’s attention.

Interestingly, as “The Argentine,” focuses on the success of the soon-to-be 50th anniversary of the triumph of the Cuban Revolutionary war in the Sierra Maesta in 1959, “The Guerrilla,” focuses on the fatal failure of Che Guevara in Bolivia in 1967. Together they are a juxtaposition of the historical figure’s triumphs and tragedy.

In part one, the story of Che’s first venture into guerrilla warfare pits him alongside Cuban revolutionaries in a fight to the death against the island’s dictator Flugencio Batista. Centrally focused on the struggle in the mountainside, “The Argentine” is told with accompanying interspersed black and white scenes from Che’s December 11th, 1964 address to the United Nations, interviews, and flashbacks of his conspiratorial conversations in Mexico with a young, arrogant exiled lawyer from Cuba named Fidel Castro. The dynamism these cinematic frames give “The Argentine,” are essential as they lend the film its deepest, if only, explicit exploration of Che’s political views. Without them, “The Argentine,” would be a war action film of guerrilla warfare, which translates onto the silver screen as less enthralling - so to speak - than conventional warfare.

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 of the Caribbean. Raul Castro, Vilma Espin, and Celia Sanchez are nominally portrayed. Che’s future wife Aleida March is also featured albeit with little substance given as to how their relationship develops. Giving the film charisma are the masterful portraits of Fidel Castro and Camilo Cienfuegos by Demian Bichir and Santiago Cabrera respectively. Bichir accurately captures the larger than life persona of Fidel while Cabrera brings Cienfuegos, the vivifying long-bearded swashbuckler mysteriously disappeared at sea in 1959, back to life so much so that the actors’ limited on-screen time leaves the audience wanting more. Del Toro, who won Best Actor in Cannes for a role he said that he’d never imagined he’d take on in a Q&A session after the screening, executes Che with a studied perfection and a striking physical resemblance.

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 for the life-risking task of fighting for one’s ideals. The dual end results of triumph and martyrdom seal the lore. However, in part one of Soderbergh’s film, the daily ins and outs of guerrilla warfare that Che found life affirmation in flesh out much of the narrative. 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 29th, 1958. With that striking blow, the revolution is essentially won, with part one coming to a close oddly without the scenes of jubilation in the streets of Havana.

Part two, “The Guerrilla,” opens with Bichir skillfully recreating the historic televised speech Fidel 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 being made for a plot to hatch revolution in Bolivia. Adorning thick-rimmed glasses and a balding hairline, a disguised Che readies himself to depart once more for life as a guerrilla, which he held as the apex of his humanity. Departing from his family, few emotions are displayed save for a moment of holding the hand of his wife tenderly in silence. Once in Bolivia, the scene is quite different than in Cuba. The vivifying 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 to the film. Lou Diamond Phillips, portraying Monje, the Bolivian Communist Party leader, elicited laughter from Latino audience members who eternally see him as La Bamba’s Ritchie Valens! That aside, Soderbegh again elected to centrally focus the film on the guerrilla campaign only this time without the narrative frames that “The Argentine” enjoyed.

”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 ultimately ends in solemn defeat. 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 also some of the most gripping dialogue of history as well. Gone is the elucidating political conversation between a captured Che and an a Bolivian school teacher in La Higuera as is the image of a drunken soldier who trembles to execute him before Che bursts “Shoot Coward!” Despite those curious omissions, Soderbergh is still able to skillfully craft the emotional crescendo of his epic. With Mercedes Sosa boisterously singing in the background, Che is taken out in a stretcher fully covered in an Andean blanket to be transported in a helicopter flying 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 entry pages of Che’s diaries of revolution, Soderbergh charts a course that illustrates the guerrilla through his very 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 will 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 statesman are almost entirely omitted, as is a deep, and more controversially daring examination of his core Marxist ideals. His Oedipal relationship with his mother and the self-reflective letters he penned to her are nowhere to be seen as well. The filmmakers avoided any serious shades of criticism with their controversial protagonist with their by-the-book, or in this case, by-the-diary approach.

In the end, even a nearly four and a half hour film exploration of two of Che Guevara’s attempts at armed revolution in Latin America is insufficient. The task of fully assessing this seismic 20th century icon of rebellion is seemingly impossible to be sure. Indeed as screenwriter Peter Buchman said in the Q&A session, encapsulating these years of Che’s life was too immense for one film and had to be expanded to two for contextual reasons. Together, Soderbergh’s necessary two-part Che biopic is a historically accurate retelling of Guevara’s life in the Cuban Revolution and attempted revolution in Bolivia. Such is but a fragmented, though entirely important view of the man. For a complete understanding of the Che, Soderbergh’s Che indirectly suggests that the silver screen cannot even begin to do it alone. Such a task belongs to one of Che’s chief obsessions; the written word. Soderbergh’s offerings, which join the multitude of documentaries and the numerous literary treatments of Guevara, point to the one word best fit to describe the life of Che; voluminous.

Gabriel San Roman co-produces Uprising Radio heard on KPFK Los Angeles. 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. Reprinted from LatinoLA .

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