Last week I wrote about the preconceived thoughts and prejudices that I was bringing to Steven Soderbergh's two-part film bio-epic about the life of Ernesto "Che" Guevara, the Argentinean guerrilla leader and the most iconic face of the 20th century. Last night I braved a very cold Philadelphia night and set aside a whole night to see the two films at once. It all started at 7PM and it finished at 11:30PM (we also had a brief intermission).
This film is an accomplishment of time and effort; however, because the film lacks a plot, unless you are a Guevaraphile, it may bore you to sleep. I already have empirical evidence of this: the guy in front of me was asleep most of the time, and the blonde next to me was asleep for about an hour in the first film, and most of the second.
If you accept the mythical figure of Che without its dark side (Che was the grim executioner of the Cuban Revolution, and he himself executed 14 prisoners and deserters during the war; he was also the man who signed the countless firing squad death sentences after the rebels triumphed) then you may be disappointed in the fact that Soderbergh, although he focuses a lot on the humanistic side of Guevara, does not super-glorify or elevate him in the manner that past Castro or Che apologists have. In fact, more than once he delivers a boring Che.
If you consider Che as a charismatic murderer, as many people do, then you will also be disappointed by the fact that Soderbergh skips lightly over most of Che as a murdering psychopath. We see glimpses of it as Cubans shout at him during Guevara's New York visit and call him an assassin and murderer. We also see it in the rather frigid firing squad execution of two deserters in the first film. But we never see Che himself pulling the trigger against a deserter or a prisoner, as it has been documented he did 14 times.
Part one of the film covers the period of the Cuban Revolution, although it starts with a dizzying array of back-and-forth glimpses of Che and Castro in Mexico (just prior to the revolutionary landing in Oriente province), clips of Guevara in the United States after the triumph of the Revolution, and endless skirmishes and firefights during the struggle itself.
Part two makes an unfortunate jump to the end of Guevara's life, skipping all of the post-revolution years, which is where the Che myth was started. Unless you are a Guevara myth follower, you may be somewhat lost in the first twenty minutes of the second film. I will tell you that part two is an endurance test, and there were several desertions during the screening.
Because I revel in my pedantic need to detect historical inaccuracies, I must report that Soderbergh perpetuates an inaccuracy — that only 12 people survived the Granma landing — that was "institutionalized" as revolutionary myth by Castro in a heavy-handed alignment with Christ's number of disciples, Castro as the Messiah and Che, Camilo, and the others as his disciples.
It is one of several Hollywood-style historical mistakes in the film. Another one is showing Vilma Espin, the upper class Communist daughter of a Bacardi executive, as one of the original rebels in the mountains. Espin, who eventually married Raul Castro, was an urban anti-Batista fighter in the streets of Santiago, fighting under Frank Pais, not Fidel Castro. Pais was strongly anti-Communist and thus presented a direct leadership challenge to Castro. Of interest, a persistent rumor blames Espin as the traitor responsible for Pais' death at the hands of the Batista police. After the Revolution triumphed, several Communists were shot for being Batista police informants.
Benicio del Toro plays a very convincing Che, and he will probably be rewarded with Oscar nominations for this mythical role. He is excellent in preserving the charismatic and "good" side of Che, but little attention is paid by del Toro (we must assume because of Soderbergh) to the brutal, dark side of Che and his important part in institutionalizing a bloody, repressive regime after the Revolutionary triumph.
Soderbergh delivers Che as a champion of the poor, the illiterate, the peasants, and the meek. Even a light reading of Che's own writing and memoirs would reveal that this simplistic offering of this highly complex figure is incomplete and perhaps even dishonest. A more balanced approach should have included the Guevara who was judge, juror, and executioner, and the inexperienced Guevara who helped to destroy the Cuban middle class, the island's business infrastructure, and its agricultural base.
Mexican actor Demian Bichir does a very decent Castro, with an excellent mimic of Castro's odd way of speaking. One pedantic issue is the actor's height, which is about the same as del Toro, while the true Fidel Castro used his towering height to his advantage when addressing his subordinates. The film also fails to explore the conflicts between Che and the Castro brothers. Furthermore, the reasons for Che's departure for Cuba are not explored at all.
Dariel Alarcon Ramirez (a Cuban with stellar revolutionary credentials who joined the rebels in 1956 and then followed Guevara to Bolivia) claims that Che "left Cuba after being accused of being a Trotskist and a Maoist… and because of the problems he had with the Cuban government, specifically Fidel and Raul Castro."
One supporting actor who steals the limelight in almost every scene that he's in is Venezuelan actor Santiago Cabrera, who plays the immense part of Camilo Cienfuegos, the charismatic, joking, womanizing, and exceptionally loved Comandante of the Cuban Revolution.
Cienfuegos disappeared at sea a few months after the Revolution triumphed, immediately becoming a formidable martyr in the revolutionary pantheon. His disappearance has always been mired in speculation that his airplane was shot down at the orders of the Castro brothers. A few minutes after Cienfuegos' Cessna aircraft departed from Camaguey Airport, a Seafury combat aircraft took off. Cienfuegos' disappearance was not reported for almost 24 hours and then Cienfuegos' own chief of staff was assassinated a few days later.
In Cuba, only Cienfuegos challenges Che as the iconic face of the Revolution. With his ever present smile, his huge mane of hair and beard, and his big hat, this fun-loving Comandante is portrayed exceptionally well by Cabrera.
Part two is a huge disappointment in its lack of character development or even the slightest explanation as to why we jump from Cuba to Bolivia. Che's Bolivian guerrilla band, which never numbered more than 51, included 17 Cubans who went along with Guevara in his effort to "export" revolution to the Americas. The Cubans held nearly all the command positions, but they were unable to speak the local Quechua language of the indigenous local Indians.
Che noted in his diaries that the local peasants were "as impenetrable as rocks." It was this inability to "penetrate" them, that doomed the Bolivian expedition.
In part two, I was also disappointed by the lack of development of the character of Tania, as played by German actress Franka Potente. Tania, an East German woman whose real name was Tamara Bunke, was killed in an ambush a few days before Che Guevara in 1967; her remains were discovered earlier this year and sent to Cuba. Those who remember the Patty Hearst saga may recall that Hearst's nickname was Tania, in honor of Che's Tania.
Che and Tania had actually met in Cuba. She told him that she was an Argentinean, when in fact she was an East German KGB agent sent to Havana to keep tabs on Che. In Bolivia, she disobeyed his orders and joined him in the highlands. When she and the other guerrillas walked into an ambush, betrayed by the local indigenous people, she was four months pregnant with Che's child.
None of these interesting facts are explored in the second film, not that I want to add time to it.