– “The Best of the Decade Project” is an ongoing series of essays written by Match Cuts and The Filmist concerning the finest films of the last ten years.
He moves among the crowd now, clasping the hands of the thronging people on all sides, with a smile breaking his lips. And, he says to them, just before beginning the long trip to Havana: “…we won the war. The revolution starts now.”
A hipster icon, a symbol of revolution, almost a saint to most, and a butcher to many – Ernesto “Che” Guevara. Who is he? What is he? In the words of the woman who interviews him at some point early on in the film, “he is a Marxist, a soldier, a physician and the power behind Fidel Castro.” One of the most controversial and venerated figures of the twentieth century, called by Frantz Fanon “the world symbol of the possibilities of one man.” His legacy has been fraught by several previous filmic renditions – notable among them 2004’s The Motorcycle Diaries, adapted from his own book of the same name, and the failure that was 1969’s Che! by Richard Fleischer. And now, after passing from the hands of Glenn’s favorite Terrance Malick, the buck has passed to Steven Soderbergh, a director whose work can – more than any other, I think – be clearly divided with a thick black sharpie into three separate categories: his more boyant, fun “populist” (not my word) films like the Ocean‘s movies, his outré’ semi-avant garde experimental films like this year’s recent The Girlfriend Experience, and – then the other ones. The films that combine the real passion found in his otherwise uninteresting experiments with real formal dynamism – there’s about three of those in his filmography, counting the second of the Che films. But, what films they are – and what a contrast they create with his other films. And here, when asked about what attracted him to this particular project, it seems it wasn’t the ideology – he regards Marxism and Communism as hopelessly idealistic and easily corruptible – but the man. The one who came up from the forest and took back the country.
We begin out of context – black and white footage looking out of a limo moving along a crowded city street. People, with signs. Yells. Shouts. As Che emerges from the car, the voices become clearer: “Murderer! Murderer!” He gives them a quick glance, and enters the building. It’s nineteen-sixty four, six years after the bulk of the film’s events take place. Che is giving his first speech to the U.N., what will turn out to be a firey reprisal of U.S. imperialism – and, among the rest of the city’s elite, he’s become something of a cocktail favorite. The image of Che is familiar to us – beard and beret, a long coat. Hard eyes. But then – we’re in Mexico City, before all this mess, and there’s a young, clean-shaven guy in a linen-white shirt, talking on the terrace in the night air with Fidel Castro, about something called the 26th of July Movement. And, so does the film proceed – for the most part, in the mode of classical Hollywood cinema, but every so often, moving backward and forward through time to add illumination on the events of 1955-1958. After ordering the execution of two soldiers for their crimes against an uninvolved family later on in the movie, it is then that the film returns to the U.N., as Che moves to the podium to speak and give his famous 1964 speech, which ends with the declaration of “Homeland or Death!” The film returns to the U.N. again later on, and once in particular to create another intriguing parallel – as various U.N. officials argue over the validity of Cuba in its current post-Revolution state, the guerrilla camp comes under air raid six years earlier – but for the moment – Che moves into the mountains of the Sierra Maestra.
And it is here, in a way, that it becomes obvious that this is an action film of sorts, as visceral as any that have been released in the last ten years – during the heat of the battle, Soderbergh places us on the ground, as bullets whip past us unseen, but quick enough that they break the air all around us. Every angle is precise and deliberate, and unexpected. Always, the cinematography strikes a balance between objectivity and a subtle subjectivity. During one of the sieges on the army barracks in the Sierra Maestra – which is also used to demonstrate the real brilliance of the military strategy that brought Castro and Guevera, and the rest of the rebels and company, their eventual victory – everything is chaos, and we’re in the middle of the mess. Luckily enough, however, the camera itself remains unaffected, cool even. Observant and quick. Shouts and yells from all sides – men are knocked down into the grass, and crimson spreads over their shirts. Such a thing is maintained even into the later portions of the film, during the air raid on the rebel’s camp in the jungle, and on the extended attack during The Battle of Santa Clara, which dominates the latter half of the film – and, which also demonstrates Soderbergh’s real grasp of the period, with its smokey, blood and thunder mise en scene and constant focus on “men making history – or not.”* Indeed, with its focus on formal dynamism, it seems at times like – if Soderbergh hadn’t decided to enter into his current mode of filmmaking, while making films like this only once in a blue moon – he could’ve been this generation’s Sergio Leone. Glimpses, here and there. It’s also kind of interesting the potent metaphor that the film strikes upon almost inadvertently for the revolution as a whole, as – in order to get through to the church at the center of it all, and that contains a clear firing line across the city, without having to make a dangerous direct assault – the rebels decide to drill through the walls of five adjacent houses.
As critic A.O. Scott noted in his review, the real motifs of this film seem to be “…facial hair, tobacco smoke and earnest militant bombast.” There is a real, tangible feeling to the proceedings we’re seeing unfold, from the sweatiness of the rebel soldier’s beards to Che’s laboured breathing in the more frantic scenes of the film. We can practically smell it, and feel the vibrant leaves of the jungle. And, a lot of this is helped by Soderbergh’s use of the new (at the time prototype) Red One cameras, which – on a personal level – make my mouth just water in wanting to use them. Here, they’re given real work in enveloping us the viewer in the world of late fifties Cuba, in the jungles and the towns that the revolution took place in. There’s a constant smokiness in the air, and the stench of gunpowder everywhere. Real, ear pounding, blood and thunder.
Central to the film beyond all else is Benicio Del Toro’s potrayal of Che. Not the gallant swashbuckler given life by Omar Sherif, or the wide-eyed motorcycle rider of Gael Garcia Bernal, this is something else entirely. Distant and yet commanding – at times, when the rest of the rebels have taken it upon themselves to go and carouse in celebration of some victory or another over yonder way, he can be spotted off composing something down in his book, observing them from afar. And yet, at still other times, he cannot separate himself from the rest of the camp, and it is only later on in the film that he actually abandons his role as the physician, deciding to take up a gun for the first time and starting off on the road to becoming the figurehead of the insurrection. And, the choice of Del Toro in the role is interesting, for another small and frivolous reason that nobody else has pointed out: his character in Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing adaptation, in the fleeting moments that we saw him in tie and business suit in his office as the charismatic Oscar Zeta Acosta, there’s a Che poster or two displayed in the background. Inconsequential, really – but, it caught my eye.
The film manages to avoid one-note hero worship, but there is no doubt that we’re watching a man slowly become the kind of mythic figure that is often spoken of when Che’s name is mentioned – the two seem to define each other, really. More and more, as Ernesto seems to “become” the archetypal, his asthma seems to become more and more emphasised. And, yet – at the same time, Soderbergh always keeps us at a steady distance from the man. We never do learn about his life before the revolution, and it is only glancingly revealed near the end that he has a wife and children, through a line of dialogue. Perhaps this isn’t the point, though – the film, and Soderbergh by extension, seems to see Che as more than one philosopher of the sixties saw him, as the physical embodiment of the revolution, and his ideals. This is, I think, best conveyed in the last scene of the film – on the road to Havana, a couple of soldiers in joyous celebration pull up in a gleaming red Chrysler convertible that they’d taken off a government official back in Santa Clara. Che pulls them over to the side of the road, and orders them to drive all the way back to Santa Clara and return the car to it’s owner – it doesn’t matter who he was, such thievery was an element of the old regime, and the revolution must operate by new principles, entirely.
This is the man in the context of the events that the film deems it worthy to cover. Soderbergh omits his time as a government minister, and any of the events that happened directly afterward that many consider just as important in Cuba’s new history – the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis, those events. Or, most ominously, and the elephant in the room whenever the film is mentioned, Che’s time at La Cabana’. Luckily, the film doesn’t ignore the latter entirely, much to the chagrin of a few – there are ominous foreshadowings, here and there. The execution of two soldiers after they’ve been found to have raided several civilian houses, remarks that seem to brush past casually. Finally, building to Che’s speech at the U.N., where he declares: “Yes, we have executed; we are executing and we will continue to execute as long as is necessary. Our struggle is a struggle to the death.”
Of course, behind the man was his own leader, Fidel Castro – at the time, only two years older than Ernesto. Here, he’s portrayed in a weirdly effective bout of mimicry by Demian Bicher, who seems to have turned the Horse’s rolling diction and occasional theatricality into a part of his own personality – and, though he’s not painted in as full a color as Del Toro’s Che, it quickly becomes obvious as to what the attraction is and was to his movement. The impression is of real charisma behind bifocals – which, whatever your opinion of the man as he stands today, is not something easy to deny. It’s his military strategy that’s emphasized throughout the first half of the film, and his understanding of the importance of the barracks in the Sierre Maestra. But, he doesn’t command the presence that Del Toro’s Che does, even though for a fair portion of the film, it’s he that Che reports under.
I realize that it’s somewhat uncouth and unfair to separate this film from its second half, Guerrilla – but, while they do mirror and reflect each other constantly, are so distinct from one another stylistically that it shouldn’t cause too much of a fuss. I find the second half a bit messier than most – perhaps that’s intentional on Soderbergh’s part, given what he’d said a while back about his approach to the two halves and their basis in the respective diary entries of Che. But, I don’t think it works quite as well as this first half does, which is a whole film in itself, tracing Che from one end to the other of the reclamation of Cuba, while the second half really only works in tandem with The Argentine. Also, it seems to fall victim to the same problem I had with Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ, and that is that it’s two hours of the constant suffering of its main character without much point. Still, I’d probably argue that it’s certainly a better film than The Passion, which is a film bizarrely without its namesake, but –
But, who is Che? What is Che? During an interview with a Latin newscaster just prior to his U.N. speech – and, coincidently, the one where the woman perks up and decides to ask the real meaty question of her guest, the one that will really hit the spot: “So, how does it feel to be a symbol?” she asks. And, Che is silent for a moment before speaking, which is then interpreted through his translator. His response is:
“…a symbol of what?”
One of the best essays on the film that I’ve yet read, and that moves past all the weird and constant polarities that seem to pop up whenever Guevara’s name is mentioned, is J. Hoberman’s “Behold the Man: Steven Soderbergh’s Epic Film Biography of Che,” which can be found here.
Conversely, Glenn Heath’s #5 entry, Spike Lee’s 25 Hour, can be found here.