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Benicio del Torre as Che

A couple of days ago I finally got round to seeing Steven Soderberg's new film Che, about the life of Argentine revolutionary Ernesto Che Guevara. Set almost entirely in Cuba during the revolution against dictator Fulgencio Batista, the film chronicles Che's rise to prominence during the guerrilla warfare in the Sierra Maestra Mountains.

Unlike Soderbergh's slick "Ocean" films starring such celebrities as George Clooney, this movie is rather mannered and stripped down stylistically. Soderbergh clearly wanted to give the audience a sense of what it takes to be a successful revolutionary, and the kinds of physical and emotional sacrifices this entails. We get lots of scenes of grueling jungle marches and bloody skirmishes with government troops.

It makes for a rather brutal and unrelenting two and a half hours. A lay audience which is unfamiliar with this particular chapter of history might be turned off by the pacing and docu-drama feel of this movie. It's certainly a far cry from Motorcycle Diaries, an earlier film about Che Guevara which had an easier and more commercial feel about it. Unlike Motorcycle Diaries, which had a folkloric Latin American soundtrack, this movie does not have much music.

Benicio del Toro, who plays Che, depicts the Argentine revolutionary as a rather psychologically aloof and impenetrable character. From my own readings that rendering may be somewhat accurate, but it may not make the movie any more accessible to a general audience. On another note, I found Soderbergh's editing to be jarring: the director frequently cuts from color scenes of the Sierra Maestra mountains to black and white scenes of Che Guevara giving a speech to the United Nations after the conclusion of the Cuban Revolution.

Despite the problems, I still found Che riveting. To his credit, Soderbergh gives the audience a sense of Che's own political evolution in the field. Towards the beginning, Che is unsure of himself as a military commander and defers to other Cuban rebel leaders who consider him a foreign interloper in their land. Over time however Fidel gives Che more authority. The Argentine gains confidence and becomes more and more ruthless towards his subordinates. In one scene he oversees the execution of a disobedient guerrilla fighter who has raped a local campesina woman. Del Toro plays the scene cold and methodical.

The climactic final half hour of the movie chronicles Che's military descent from the Sierra Maestra mountains and into the lowland plains. There is an extraordinary scene in which Che's troops derail a train full of Batista's troops. In the city of Santa Clara, Che confronts a local police commander. In a dispassionate tone of voice, our protagonist tells his opponent that he must surrender or the rebels will launch a costly and bloody assault.

Soderbergh's Che may not be blockbuster Hollywood fare, but the director's depiction of this iconic political figure has a sense of historical accuracy about it. That is my impression at least after reading My Life With Che (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2008) a memoir written by Hilda Gadea, the Argentine revolutionary's first wife. Here's what I had to say about the book when Palgrave asked me to write a blurb:

"Gadea's life story is not as well known as her husband's, but in many ways it was even more extraordinary than that of the famous revolutionary. A political refugee from Peru, she was exiled not once but twice -- first to Guatemala and later to Mexico. Frequently harassed and jailed by the police for her political beliefs, Gadea’s stoic resolve in the face of great odds was remarkable. My Life With Che is a revealing, compelling insider look at the life of Che Guevara, at the corrupt and compliant right wing authorities who did Washington's bidding in South America, and at a daring group of Latin American revolutionaries who dedicated their lives to the furtherance of a higher cause."

If Gadea's depiction of Che is to be believed, the Argentine revolutionary was stoical. My Life With Che is set in Guatemala and Mexico during the mid-1950s and discusses Che's interactions with Fidel and the other Cuban revolutionaries as they plotted the overthrow of the Batista regime. Che, who is determined not to commit the same mistakes of the Guatemalan left which failed to head off a U.S.-backed coup in 1954, emerges as a somewhat ruthless character who will sacrifice anything for his ideals.

In Soderbergh's movie, there is one scene in which Fidel and Che quietly talk on the balcony of a Mexico City apartment building. Fidel turns to Che and asks, "are you coming to Cuba?" Guevara responds, "Yes, as long as you give me permission to launch revolution throughout Latin America if we win in Cuba." Non-plussed, Fidel tells his new comrade that he is a little touched in the head.

I don't know if Soderbergh's scene is made up or embellished, but in light of later history and the depiction of Che in Hilda Gadea's memoir, the conversation doesn't seem outside the realm of possibility.

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