BY MATT HUTCHINS
Fifty years ago, a group of idealistic radicals gathered in Mexico to plan a rebellion that they hoped would sweep the Western Hemisphere and bring justice and equality to all Latin American nations. Led by Fidel Castro, these rebels set out on a boat to bring armed revolution to Cuba and unite the people in a struggle against the oppressive class heirarchy and foreign domination perpetuated by the Batista government. Among those who were aboard that boat with Castro was Ernesto “Che” Guevara, a man who would become a symbol of revolution around the world.
Steven Soderbergh’s latest film, “Che”, is an epic historical biopic which depicts Guevara’s rise as a commander in the Cuban Revolution and his fall as the leader of a failed rebellion in Bolivia.
Benicio Del Toro, who received the Best Actor award at the Cannes film festival in 2008 for his portrayal of Guevara, was at the Kendall Square cinema last weekend to present a limited-release double feature roadshow format of the film. In the first feature, “The Argentine”, Che joins Castro’s revolution and rises to be a military and intellectual leader as well as diplomatic representative of Communist Cuba. The chronicles of the revolution are peppered with black-and-white scenes from a visit by Che to the United Nations in 1964. These scenes demonstrate his ideological vision and his rhetorical zeal, while the course of the revolution reveals the experiences that hardened his resolve and revolutionary purpose. The second feature, “Guerrilla”, delves into the failed rebel campaign orchestrated by Guevara in Bolivia, which culminated in his death at the hands of the Bolivian army. Curtailed by the espionage activities of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and the Soviet Communists, Guevara was never able to establish a solid foothold in the mountains of Bolivia. Ultimately, with his rebels failing to receive the support of the Bolivian political resistance or the rural peasants and with the Bolivian military receiving weapons and training from the United States, Che’s rebels are starved, divided, and hunted until the final capture and execution of Guevara himself.
In a question and answer session after the film, Del Toro explained that numerous interviews were conducted with the friends and family of Che Guevara and the surviving leaders of the Cuban Revolution in order to prepare for the film. This direct contact with personal aquaintences of Guevara gave Del Toro, “an impression that cannot be communicated on film” and helped him understand the true character of the man he portrayed. Del Toro spoke of his deep respect for Guevara and acknowledged that in portraying a well-known man he had to face the challenge of trading artistic license for historical accuracy. The production of the film was fraught with difficulties, according to Del Toro, including trouble arranging financing and a tight filming schedule. He expressed relief that the production was a success and that audiences have thus far received the film well, including at the film festival last year in Havana, Cuba. He was relieved that those who were personally involved in the Cuban Revolution were easily able to accept the film as “just a movie” and embraced it as a faithful depiction of historical events despite some technical discrepancies made for artistic effect.
Harvard Law School LL.M. student Aynel Alvarez Guerra, who is originally from Cuba and lived most of his life in Havana, was excited that Soderberg and Del Toro portrayed the life of Guevara and the events of the Cuban Revolution so faithfully. “I really believe that this film could help Americans rethink Cuban history and that it could contribute to the normalization of relations between the United States and my country.”
Alvarez Guerra found Del Toro’s performance to have successfully embodied both the personality of Guevara and the spirit of the Cuban Revolution, and he was impressed by the candor with which the filmmakers presented Guevara’s role both as a military leader and civil organizer.
“Che” employs a determined attachment to historical context and realistic filmmaking to demystify a man whose status as a revolutionary icon has in today’s society eclipsed his significance as a historical figure. Both Soderberg and Del Toro rise to the challenge of presenting Guevara’s evolution from a misanthropic intellectual to a courageous rebel and determined guerrilla leader without indulging in rebel cowboy myth building, and Del Toro excels as lead actor, projecting brooding psychological depth and indomitable personal dignity.
As Guevara, he resolutely confronts the harsh conditions and difficult life-and-death decisions of war with a cool machismo that is free of arrogance yet which displays a constant inner struggle with deep ethical principles. Guevara is shown to be a complex man who is both philosophical and pragmatic, a humanist and a warrior, and fierce yet compassionate. As a doctor, Guevara is a combat medic, triage surgeon, and town healer, always cognizant of the importance of the unglamorous work of caring for the injured and sick. As a soldier, Che is a harsh disciplinarian, a shrewd tactician, a careful strategist, and a courageous fighter, constantly vigilant to maintain morale and commitment by his soldiers to the cause for which they fight. Del Toro masterfully carries each of these roles, and he seamlessly moves from one period of Che’s life to the next, believably portraying the overwhelming physical challenges of life as a guerrilla.
Whether or not the double-feature version of “Che” sees a nationwide cinematic release, it deserves widespread recognition for its historical and artistic merits as an unflinching examination of Ernesto Guevara’s actions in Cuba and Bolivia. Its four hours of intense, graphic depiction of guerrilla life is a great artistic and cultural accomplishment; Soderberg has managed to completly relocate the viewer to the context and circumstances of Cuba’s revolution and Che’s struggle to spread guerrilla resistance to imperialism. Traditional American cultural barriers to Communist rhetoric are absent, and the viewer is subversively drawn into the fabric of the revolution. Realistic camera movement and sound immerse the audience in the jungle and the its constant threat of unknowable dangers, and jarring photographic effects shake the viewer’s sense of whether they are seeing fiction or reality. Despite its harsh realism, Che’s death strikes the viewer as an absurd, futile effort to put out a fire that is already burning in the hearts of oppressed people around the world.