Allow Me To Explain

Little courage in film portrayal of the Heroic Guerrilla

Posted in Cuba, Ernesto 'Che' Guevara, Film reviews, History by amte on July 9, 2009

Director Steven Soderbergh has produced a fairly straight-forward, if uninspired, film in “Che,” a two-part presentation of Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara’s participation in revolutionary wars in Cuba and Bolivia.

The first part of the four-hour, 18-minute film depicts the Argentine-born Ernesto “Che” Guevara’s participation in the revolutionary war in Cuba, which ousted the bloody-dictatorship of the U.S.-government and mafia backed Fulgencio Batista. The film progresses with the rag tag group of guerrillas as they make their way across the island, gaining support, recruits and victories. Events from Che’s initial meeting with Cuban leader Fidel Castro in Mexico through his last battle before victory are accurately portrayed. Throughout the fighting, we are continually brought forward to Che’s historic speech at the United Nations in 1964, in which he exposed the U.S. government, which “is not the champion of freedom, but rather the perpetrator of exploitation and oppression against the peoples of the world and against a large part of its own population.”

The second part of the film depicts the guerrilla war initiated by Che and a group of his comrades in Bolivia, aimed at toppling the military dictatorship that existed there and paving the way for the construction of socialism. Despite a drawn out introduction which aptly demonstrated Bolivia’s location in the heart of South America, those not familiar with Che’s ideas may not realize his continental strategy, which was to start in Bolivia with a group of internationalist guerrillas who would, upon gaining enough strength, branch out into the surrounding countries and initiate similar struggles. Using different cameras and filming styles from part one, Soderbergh and company do a good job of recreating the struggle. Most of the events that contributed to Che’s defeat – from the monumental betrayal by the leader the Communist Party of Bolivia Mario Monje (Lou Diamond Philipps), who refused to help the struggle as promised and instead actively worked against it, to the treachery of the Argentine artist Ciro Bustos (Gastón Pauls), who drew identifying pictures of all of the guerrillas after being captured by the Bolivian army – are covered. While most fight scenes are realistic, the portrayal of Che’s capture in battle is lacking.

While some will undoubtedly argue that film is too long, it could hardly have been otherwise. The historic episodes portrayed in the film deserve serious attention. A condensed biopic of the Che’s extensive revolutionary career could not have done it justice.

A better criticism would be to question the exact moments and events that Soderbergh decided to focus on. Noticeably absent from the film were any depictions of the general strike that sealed the Rebel Army’s victory and their victorious ride into Havana. Further, there was no mention of the U.S. government’s role in Che’s execution. While outside the scope of the film, brief overviews of Che’s life both before meeting Fidel Castro and during his time in the Cuban government would have been helpful.

Helpful too, both for audiences and the film team, would have been filming the first part of the film on location in Cuba. Of course the blockade that the U.S. government has maintained against Cuba for decades prevented that.

Benicio del Toro is fitting as Che, though he is unable to muster the energy or replicate the depth of the fallen revolutionary.

Demian Bichir does a fairly good job as Fidel Castro, but he lacks the charisma of the Cuban leader. Other actors do good jobs of portraying their respective characters, but Spanish speakers will notice differences in their accents. Catalina Sandino Moreno, who plays the Cuban Aleida March (Che’s second wife), maintains the accent of her native Colombia throughout the film. Many others portraying Cuban revolutionaries carry the accents of their native Mexico.

As was the case in his previous film “The Good German,” Soderbergh fails to properly develop the characters in “Che” – an unforgivable mistake in a film based on well documented events and historical figures.

In the end, Soderbergh remains too far outside of the main character. Unlike Che, he fails to take any risks. While he doesn’t obscure the facts (and briefly allows revolutionary  theory and practice to be described from the perspective of revolutionaries themselves instead of the capitalist rulers and their mouthpieces – a rare feat in post-blacklist cinema), he also avoids taking up Che’s cause: the cause of humanity.

Thankfully, Soderbergh’s film didn’t reflect his belief that revolutionary war is “a type of war that can’t be fought anymore,” or star Benicio del Toro’s ridiculous assertion that today “revolutionaries can use elections and other nonviolent methods to promote change.”

Sorderbergh has stated that he “wanted to show day-to-day stuff – things that have meaning on a practical level and on an ideological level, but that, from a narrative standpoint, aren’t necessarily in support of some goal” to show “what it might have been like to be there.” In that he succeeded.

“Che” does a sufficient job of portraying Che and his participation in the Cuban Revolution and guerrilla war in Bolivia. But little courage was shown in making the film, which is very regretful. “Che” was sufficient, but it could have been much more.

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