by Sana Malik
BASICS Issue #13 (April/May)
Steven Soderbergh's 4.5 hour biopic on Ernesto Che Guevara is an accomplished and respectful take on the revolutionary years of Che’s short life. For those who expect a celebratory tribute to the Latin American figure, Soderbergh’s piece will seem like a vague attempt to represent a hero’s tale. However, Soderbergh’s depiction and stylistic choices – always showing not telling – are as complex as its subject. Che was a principled man, but he was not without flaws or errors in judgement. This is an epic that celebrates his victories, but it just as easily leads you into the frustration of crushing defeat that Che was surely encountering. Soderbergh's strong cinematic overtures, and the contrast in pace and tone between part one and part two provoke questions on who Che was as a revolutionary and as a leader forced to make conflicting decisions. And that's exactly where this picture is the strongest- never making any judgements but leaving the viewer in the position of dissecting Che’s actions as a man of principle, without ever making his thoughts or actions palpable.
Part one contrasts scenes of guerrilla fighting in the 50’s in the Cuban heartland with Che’s first visit to the UN in 1964. His zeal and confidence are on full display in the gritty black and white reel, and a BBC reporter’s voiceover makes distinct the simultaneous suspicion and intrigue the West held of Che. It’s here that Soderbergh introduces and plays on the iconic and visionary poses that make the Argentine recognizable as a revolutionary, while the battle of Cuba wages on in subsequent scenes. Che remains obscure in Soderbergh’s vision - adding to his larger than life image as a popular icon – and Benicio del Toro captivates with perfection in the lead. Del Toro’s Che is equally compassionate and cruel, sometimes dogmatic and other times rash, his brilliant intellect on display and his crucial miscalculations devastating. It makes the man all the harder to understand.
The battle has been won and Cuba’s glorious socialist revolution is now place, and part two begins with Fidel Castro reading Che’s farewell letter to the Cuban people he helped free from the forces of imperialism. Che’s vision for a free and socialist Latin America has compelled his return to guerrilla warfare in Bolivia and to his eventual death. This story is less about his image as a revolutionary icon and more about a man as complex and conflicted as a determined fighter. The glamour is left behind in part one, and the continuation is a more reflective piece that captures Che’s raw emotion and human spirit. Or at least as much is accessible. Soderbergh reconstructs the complexity of Che’s covert battle – in the landscape and with himself – through discrete, but powerful sequences in the fateful year Che spent in the Bolivian highlands. Che sees everything that happened in Cuba in reverse: he is rejected by the peasants he hopes to liberate, his battalion shrinks as fighters die, are wounded, or run away, and the American-trained Bolivian militia encroaches his terrain. But he never turns back and that is the biggest message this film delivers.
The film is challenged by it’s slow pace and choppy storytelling attempting to mesh parts that don’t quite work together. It’s not entirely a glamorous portrayal and part two, especially, will probably suffer in commercial success. But it’s as honest, direct and significant as the subject it portrays.