Benecio Del Toro in Cambridge
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Spoiler warning Hey everybody! How would you like to go see a four and a half hour film about Che Guevara, completely in Spanish? It ends with the dude getting killed in Bolivia, possibly under the order of the U.S. government. It’s a real pick-me-up in these times of strife.
I know it seems like you’d rather get your teeth drilled than see a massive two-part epic about a historical figure most people in my age bracket know as “that dude in the hat they put on all the indie t-shirts.” But believe me comrades: you want to see this movie.
“Che”, the new biopic directed by Steven Soderbergh is a tight, mostly well-executed history of Guevara (played by Benicio Del Toro), and his role in overthrowing the Batista regime in Cuba and work in Bolivia. It’s also a riveting look at the business of being a revolutionary.
Written by: Peter Buchman and Benjamin A. Van Der Veen
Starring: Benicio Del Toro, Demian Bichir, Catalina Sandino Moreno
Running time: 4 hrs. 23 min. (with 15 min. intermission between parts 1 and 2)
Seen at: Kendall Square Cinemas
Rating: Not rated
The first part, “The Argentine,” cross-cuts between Guevara’s beginnings in the movement, his campaign in Cuba which he and Fidel Castro brought over from Mexico, and the ten days he spent in New York speaking at the U.N. The second part, called “Guerilla”, chronicles Guevara’s decline and his failed attempts to bring revolution to Bolivia in the late 1960s.
We see little of Guevara’s personal life in either film. In “The Argentine”, we learn he has children and a wife in Mexico only in passing, and at one point he shows up with a broken arm, with no explanation. In the second film, the first five minutes are devoted to his second wife and their children, before they disappear into the cinematic ether and he runs off to Bolivia to fight back oppression.
Soderbergh is far more interested in the day-to-day life of being a resistance fighter, and the extraordinary force of collective will it took to overthrow Batista’s regime. Guevara and his men lived in the woods and walked for days without food. Guevara himself suffered from severe asthma, and frequently we see him wheezing through the jungle.
Whatever you think of him, Guevara had true vision – so much that he would refuse to let men join the resistance unless they promised to learn to read. “People who are illiterate are far too easily tricked,” he says.
Del Toro is mesmerizing as this leader. His Che is a guarded, wolfish man who sits apart from the men that he’s leading, but is also capable of tremendous compassion and joy. Del Toro brings an unusual amount of grace to the depiction of Guevara’s inner life, and his battle to keep his sense of justice and humanity in the face of desperation and unruly men. No doubt people will debate for ages about the film’s “view” of Guevara, as either a hero or a murderer. The film’s thesis appears to be that Guevara was trying to run the cleanest military campaign he could, and believed in executions as a natural part of war. Del Toro perfectly captures that thoughtfulness and meticulousness in Guevara’s psyche.
But it is Mexican actor Demian Bechir, who plays a spectacular Fidel Castro, who is truly intriguing. Besides his mannerisms and vocal tenor, Bechir exquisitely captures Castro as a political animal, with both genuine and schmaltzy charisma. Bechir’s got a pretty extensive resume in Latin American cinema, and I’ll be a happy camper if we in the United States can see much more of him.
Of the two parts, “The Argentine” is the more capable film in several respects. It’s more solidly edited and cohesive in its weaving between Cuba, Mexico and New York. The variety of scenes give tremendous energy and life to the story too. In “Guerrilla”, Soderbergh falls back on his unfortunate penchant for shaky camera techniques- at one point it looks as if he literally dropped the camera down a hill. The main death scene was a little disappointing as well, as Soderbergh makes a befuddling decision in how he shows Guevara’s execution. It may be affecting enough to make you cry, but it’s a cheap trick from a man who knows better. Far more haunting and beautiful is the scene preceding this, where Guevara chats up his captors and very nearly gets one to release him.
There are, of course, modern implications to Guevara’s story, the situation in Gaza being perhaps the most blatant. But Soderbergh, who spent almost eight years preparing and shooting “Che”, appears unconcerned with making blanket political statements. He recognizes that we don’t want to be preached at or chided. It’s far more interesting to simply chase after this doctor, warrior and philosopher, into the mountains of Sierra Maestra and the jungles of Bolivia.