February 26, 2009
Two periods from the life of Che Guavara, revolutionary and T-shirt icon, are dramatized in Che, a four-plus-hour movie from director Steven Soderbergh.
Though Che is scheduled to play at the Music Hall in Portsmouth later in March, the easiest (well, sort of) way to see it is through the “IFC In Theaters” option in Comcast’s On Demand service. There, you can buy parts one and two (each a little over two hours), each for $5.99. Because a four-hour, subtitled, Spanish-language movie might be a lot to take in a place where you can’t hit pause to go to the bathroom, this option, though lacking in the grandeur of a theatrical presentation, might be the most practical way to see the movie.
It’s how I saw the movie — part one and part two in two separate installments (viewed a couple of weeks apart from each other). The problems with this format are, with your average non-big-screen TV, mostly with the subtitles. The blurry white subtitles can be hard to read sometimes, and maps that introduce each part were nearly impossible to read on my TV. The gist, as I got it, was “here is Cuba” (part one) and “here is Bolivia” (part two), and since the movie can pretty confidently assume most of its viewers aren’t deeply familiar with the geography of the two countries, the map provides some sense of the different regions of the countries and, in the case of Bolivia, of its neighbors. It helps put the geo in the geopolitical drama we’re about to watch.
In part one, Ernesto “Che” Guevara (Benicio Del Toro) joins up with young idealist Fidel Castro (Demian Bichir) and his rebels in their attempt to liberate Cuba (we can argue about the term later; the point is that they think they’re liberating). They fight a successful guerilla insurgency, even in the beginning, and are able to win the hearts and minds of many in the general population, particularly of the poorer people living in the countryside. Successful though their progress mostly is, there are still what you might call management problems within the guerilla movement. These are after all outlaws with guns and it takes a certain amount of convincing and discipline to get these soldiers on board with the idea that you can steal from and assault the people you’re trying to “liberate.”
In part two, it is some five years or so after that conflict and Che has turned his sights to Bolivia. For him, socialist revolution against the oppressive governments of Latin America is the only hope the peasants — or, just generally speaking, the non-elites — have at fairness in their own land. In Bolivia, his struggles are much more complicated than in Cuba. We see this hero of the revolutionary world (who considers his fame such a detriment to the cause that he regularly goes by an alias) have his ideals tested in the face of a population who doesn’t welcome guerillas with open arms and a government much more willing to fight back (with some help from the U.S.).
For all its length, Che is still only really about the last 10 years or so of Guevara’s life (and not even all of those years — it skips his time in Congo). It is almost less a narrative movie and more a study of two revolutions — one successful and one not. And it’s an interesting window onto this part of Latin American history. I also think it is definitely a movie you’ll want to watch in two parts. It’s fascinating and even engrossing at times but much in the same way that some sack-of-flour-sized historical tome can be fascinating and engrossing — in stretches, with time off to think about what you’ve just learned instead of devoured all at once. And, at points, Che can be kind of numbing to sit through — it’s the kind of movie that I enjoyed a lot more after I watched it.
Del Toro, the element that pulls these two histories together, is engaging as Che. I’ve read somewhere that, because of the communalist ideals of Guevara, Soderbergh made a conscious decision not to shoot him in dramatic close-ups. In fact, the drama here is almost entirely in the events; the movie provides no sweeping scores and no hero-of-the-people shots that force you to see Che in any particular way. I think neo-hippies and neo-cons alike could find some historical value in the movie without feeling shoved toward any particular conclusions about Guevara.
Cold War politics, Latin American revolutions, the grim of insurgency — sound like a daunting choice in your universe of entertainment options? Well, I’m sure there will be a few snowy weekends left before the winter is out — the perfect opportunity to get lost in some history. B
Rated R for some violence. Directed by Steven Soderbergh and written by Peter Buchman (from Guevara’s memoir Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War), Che is a total of about four hours and 17 minutes long and is distributed in limited release and via cable by IFC Films.