Interviewer: How does it feel to be a symbol?
Che: A symbol of what?
Interviewer: A symbol of revolution.
You started seeing them in the ’90s, mostly on college students at Rage Against the Machine concerts. Then Jay-Z sported one during his 2001 MTV Unplugged appearance, and inner-city youth adopted it as the T-shirt du jour. These red (naturally) garments featuring Ernesto “Che” Guevara’s silk-screened visage—taken from Albert Korda’s iconic 1960 photo—turned the former poster boy for ’60s agitprop into a hip fashion statement. The number of these new fans who were aware that the man behind the Cuban Revolution was also responsible for the persecution of the country’s homosexuals and the establishment of labor camps on the island, however, is anyone’s guess.
Don’t expect to learn about these less-than-stellar attributes from Che, Steven Soderbergh’s two-part epic that focuses on Guevara’s victory in Cuba and defeat in Bolivia. Other than a brief mention as Guevara (a muted but magnificent Del Toro) addresses the U.N. in 1964 (“We’ve had executions…and will continue to have executions!”), the Stalinist methods that blemished his socialist uprising are regrettably AWOL. Yet to call this mammoth, occasionally myopic portrait a movie version of the T-shirt doesn’t do justice to what the director has accomplished. Soderbergh hasn’t made the definitive cinematic statement as to who this man was, but he has pulled off something equally compelling: a meta-exploration about what it took to create a Marxist revolution and construct a marketable leftist messiah.
Del Toro never strikes that iconic pose in The Argentine—the official name of Che’s part one—though that image has, for better or worse, been co-opted for the poster. Rather, you’re introduced to him through a few visual fragments: a close-up of an army boot, a cigar, a glimpse of a beret and a scraggly beard. Soderbergh then hits the requisite narrative beats—meeting Fidel Castro (Bichir), training Cuba’s peasants, fighting in Santa Clara alongside his future wife, Aleida (Sandino Moreno). But interspersed among the po-faced jungle boogies and proletariat victories are scenes of Che in New York, playing the part of glorious revolutionary to the media-savvy hilt. The contrast speaks volumes: Every slogging, self-sacrificing action is complemented by scenes of Guevara building up his own radical-chic peacock persona. After all, how can you export revolutions without a mythological figure to sell them?
The answer, per Soderbergh’s second film, Guerrilla, is: Maybe they weren’t meant to be exported at all. If The Argentine courts David Lean grandeur in its widescreen filmmaking—with Godardian voiceovers thrown in for good measure—then the second half follows a slow-and-low Straub-Huillet model of deliberation and deconstruction. Once Che, disguised as a bald, clean-shaven diplomat, enters Bolivia, the movie’s frame becomes smaller, the camerawork rougher and Del Toro’s performance more about feral survivalism than heroic stoicism. Though Guevara’s unflappable belief in liberating Latin America hasn’t faltered, no one is buying his pitch; by the time government goons have closed in, his myth is in tatters. (“Better put your best face on,” Guevara’s captors taunt. “People will want to take pictures.”) Stripped of his iconography, the political firebrand can’t inspire an uprising even
when social conditions should have made such a thing inevitable. Soderbergh, for his part, forgoes using the second-best-known photo of Che—the one featuring his corpse—and instead shows Guevara’s body helicoptered over the population’s heads. The martyr is now remarketed as a warning.
Boiling down a biopic about such a complex, contested historical figure to two tonally remote installments is a gamble, and in big-picture terms, the movie sometimes doesn’t pay off. The avoidance of sentimental great-man clichés after 2004’s hero-worshipping The Motorcycle Diaries is a relief, though in a four-hour-plus movie called Che, perhaps there should be a little more of Che the human being. Surely the inclusion of some emotional shading, if not acknowledgment of those aforementioned dogmatic flaws, could have been accomplished without either burying or praising him. Still, you have to admire Soderbergh’s scrupulously subjective, call-and-response take on the branding of an individual who became a cultural flash point. He may have given us a Che, as opposed to the Che, but the film’s image of a complex, contradictory fighter—one who still provokes mixed feelings and quickened pulses—is anything but one-dimensional.
Check out our interview with Che's Benicio Del Toro. It's radical.
Cast and crew
Catalina Sandino Moreno