Che (2008)

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Criterion Collection #496

Regardless of your political stripe (and I’m decidedly anti-Communist), Ernesto “Che” Guevara has a certain mystique, or at least he did until dipshits started wearing his visage on t-shirts. But he is, in any case, a figure worthy of study. Steven Soderbergh’s Che, which is based upon Che’s own journals, is a not-quite-biopic, not-quite-epic, not-quite-political account of Che’s revolutionary campaigns in Cuba and Bolivia.

I should mention that I’m a fan of Soderbergh’s indie work, and I think aspiring filmmakers would do well to watch Bubble, which changed everything I thought I knew about acting, and The Girlfriend Experience, which was shot in just two weeks using only available light for nearly every scene. I ended up less enthusiastic about Che, however. (Also of note is that Che was filmed with the RED system of modular digital cameras, which have gained a lot of popularity with the indie set.)

The film is split into two parts, each over two hours in length, the first dealing with Che’s exploits in Cuba, the second with Che’s ill-fated exploits in Bolivia (thus skipping Che’s abandoned campaign in Congo in between). The narrative, or what little of it exists, starts with Che as a rebel hiding out in the mountains, and avoids much discussion about political motivations and deals mostly with immediate concerns, which becomes at times a pretty mundane picture of haggling for supplies, meeting new recruits, and schlepping through the wilds, occasionally punctuated by skirmishes with the Cuban army. If this is indeed representative of Che’s journals, it’s no wonder the film is entitled “Che” and not “The Cuban Revolution”.

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What Che is, film-wise, is hard to say, and in a short interview on Criterion’s site, Soderbergh says he deliberately avoided a lot of the trappings of conventional films. The result is at times affecting, but mostly distant, both from Che and from the other people involved. I am left to wonder if this is Soderbergh’s interpretation of Che’s outlook on the situation and life in general, i.e., while Che was consumed with the plight of the “people”, he had little attachment to any single person–you could regard him as the perfect Communist! If this feeling was intentional, the film succeeds magnificently, if not, then the film has failed utterly. The audience (by which I mean, Che) is introduced to dozens of sympathizers and recruits throughout the movie, who quickly become mere assets of the revolution, and we never see them at any deeper level. Again, I’m not sure if this human distance was on purpose (I might just assume it was so I like the flick better). But if it was, the movie is not as pro-Che as some reactionaries might claim. But the man’s extraordinary military successes in Cuba and singular revolutionary intensity cannot be ignored.

As the anti-Batista revolution gains traction with the Cuban people, Castro and Che’s rebels are beset with more volunteers than they can possibly use, and end up turning away many of them, particularly those without weapons. As the movement builds momentum, government police and soldiers surrender or desert en masse. By the time they reach Santa Clara, the site of the last major battle before Batista fled the country, the revolution seems all but inevitable (and really made we want to re-watch the amazing Cuba scenes from The Godfather: Part II). To this point even I sympathize with the revolution, for what were they fighting but a foreign-backed, murderous puppet regime? Beyond that, well, Che and I part ways. As far as the less savory aspects of Che’s legacy, such as his role in executions of purported informers and traitors, we are privy to nothing besides the execution of two deserters-turned-bandits. Is this because the filmmakers were trying to avoid this messy controversy, were trying to paint Che in a better light, or was this simply absent from Che’s journals to begin with? I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt in guessing the latter, but I’m afraid I’m not inclined to read Che’s journals in order to find out if they are as long and grueling as this movie.

In Bolivia, the life of the revolutionary is even less glamorous, as Che and his men face illness, lack of supplies, and uncooperative locals, all while being pursued by US-trained commandos. While Soderbergh amply portrays the hardships of the rebels, we are left to wonder what Che has thought about nearly everything he’s done. Finally, near the end, he says only of Castro’s Cuba that it is “progressing”, and laments not better explaining their position to the Bolivian people.

My favorite scene is a cutaway to a post-revolution trip to the UN headquarters in New York, where Che thanks Senator Eugene McCarthy for the Bay of Pigs, saying there is nothing like a US-backed invasion to solidify popular support. Who knows, if Americans didn’t think they owned the world, the Communist regime in Cuba might have disintegrated before it really got started, and without Batista to rally against, may never have existed at all. Americans, however, are far too proud to learn anything from history. But we’ve got these groovy Che t-shirts.

(It was only happenstance that I began this project with two ambiguous Communist-related films; I should review Fireman’s Ball sooner than later, as I know it has a brilliant take on the subject.)

(Also, I availed myself of Netflix’s Watch Instantly feature to see Che, thus didn’t have access to the supplemental materials.)

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