Part 1 - The Argentine: Ernesto Che Guevara (Benicio Del Toro) joins Fidel Castro's (Demian Bichir) band of Cuban exiles and journeys to the island on a leaky boat in 1956. From these humble beginnings, the small team of rebels mobilise popular support and recruit an army which will ultimately topple the US-friendly regime of dictator Fulgencio Batista, while Che himself undergoes a transformation from a young doctor to one of the iconic political figures of the 20th century. Part 2 - Guerilla: Following the success of the Cuban Revolution, Che Guevara is at the peak of his fame and power when he vanishes without a trace. Resurfacing some time later in the jungles of Bolivia, Guevara sets about recruiting a new band of insurgents to help him spread the revolutionary message across the rest of Latin America. But as the Bolivian government and CIA close in on him, and the population is reluctant to follow his lead, his fate is sealed.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
The cult of Che doesn't match the real Che, whose legacy is the very opposite of what the legend tells us, according to US author & journalist Paul Berman (and writer in residence at New York University). Writing in slant.com, he says: "The cult of Ernesto Che Guevara is an episode in the moral callousness of our time. Che was a totalitarian. He achieved nothing but disaster. Many of the early leaders of the Cuban Revolution favoured a democratic or democratic-socialist direction for the new Cuba. But Che was a mainstay of the hardline pro-Soviet faction, and his faction won. Che presided over the Cuban Revolution's first firing squads. He founded Cuba's 'labor camp' system - the system that was eventually employed to incarcerate gays, dissidents, and AIDS victims." (Not mentioned in this film.)
According to Berman, Che was an enemy of freedom, "and yet he has been erected into a symbol of freedom. He helped establish an unjust social system in Cuba and has been erected into a symbol of social justice. He stood for the ancient rigidities of Latin-American thought, in a Marxist-Leninist version, and he has been celebrated as a free-thinker and a rebel."
Why am I going on about this in this review of Soderbergh's biopic opus maximus? Because the film - based on his own diaries, hence entirely from his own point of view - doesn't even touch on this aspect of Che, and thus, while perhaps interesting, fails to be of real importance. Great showcase for Benicio del Toro, of course, a wonderful actor who gives it his all. But Che, the T shirt hero of three generations, is a myth that so many today THINK Che stood for. Well, he did, to be fair, start out as a revolutionary and champion of the poor and oppressed. So did Mao, so did Stalin ... Animal Farm is the generic, unbranded version of all violent political revolutions.
As for the film itself, Soderbergh has been seduced by Ernesto Che Guevara's diaries as the source material (apart from a few departures, like the meeting between US advisors and the Bolivian President in Part 2). It's Travels With Che in his own words, which is entirely valid of course, but certainly not objective - nor particularly enlightening. This is important in setting expectations about the film, since other biopics of political figures, eg JFK, Nixon, W., have conditioned us to expect an observer's point of view, biased or not. But Soderbergh is a consummate filmmaker and his techniques are wonderfully visual, visceral and fleetingly engaging. Opening scenes establish the young, clean shaven Che and the beginnings of his first steps towards violent politics. But, despite a few scenes (like when he's being a doctor in the villages) it's out of context, other than a brief dinner speech by the young Fidel Castro, who reels off statistics of poverty in Cuba and the evil Americans.
Soderbergh changes visual styles as he flits back and forth in time, which detracts from the film's power to engage - it's just a visual version of Che's diaries. It's detailed, which is good if Che holds enough fascination for you, but it's slow if he doesn't. We see what he did, but not too much as to why he did things and what really made up this iconic figure of great contradictions. But perhaps it's a useful addition to the store of stories about individuals who effect change in the world - one way or another.
Che's so called Motorcycle Diaries (2004), adapted for the screen by Walter Salles, covered the period of his life immediately before these events and is a useful entrée to this, the two-part main course: the up of Cuba, and then the down of Bolivia, the fatal mistake. The bitter political dessert of Che's Cuban legacy, as discussed at the beginning of this review, has yet to be filmed.
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CAST: Benicio Del Toro, Damian Bichir, Santiago Cabrera, Vladimir Cruz, Alfredo De Quesada, Jsu Garcia, Kahlil Mendez, Elvira Minguez, Andreas Munar, Julia Ormond; Part 2 also: Franka Potente, Joaquim de Almeida, Pablo Duran, Eduard Fernandez, Marc-Andre Grondin, Jordi Molla, Lou Diamond Phillips
PRODUCER: Benicio Del Toro, Laura Bickford
DIRECTOR: Steven Soderbergh
SCRIPT: Peter Buchman (memoir by Ernesto Che Guevara)
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Steven Soderbergh (as Peter Andrews)
EDITOR: Pablo Zumarraga
MUSIC: Alberto Iglesias
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Antxon Gomez
RUNNING TIME: Part 1: 131 minutes; Part 2: 133 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Transmission
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: October 1, 2009