Guerilla in the Mist

Whatever happened to Che? Not the Argentine doctor turned revolutionary icon, but director Steven Soderbergh’s much-hyped biopic. Fans and fellow travelers may never find out, since the producers have yet to secure a U.S. distribution deal. But it was shown at the Cannes Film Festival last May, and those who got a sneak peak left the theater somewhat bewildered.

“Years in the making,” according to a press release, Soderbergh’s pet project was originally intended as two films, Guerilla and The Argentine. The first describes Che Guevara’s struggle in the Cuban revolution alongside Fidel Castro, while the second skips ahead a few years to the ill-fated adventure which led to his capture and execution by Bolivian forces aided by the CIA. At Cannes, the two were fused into a unwieldy epic entitled Che, nearly five hours in length.

The Cuban episodes are told in flashback, as Che is interviewed in New York before his famous address to the United Nations in 1964. From the beginning, when Che is made up by an adoring film crew, Soderbergh presents him in reverential, soft-lit tones, more myth than man, and the script has a solemn, didactic feel. The political upheaval in Cuba is glossed over with statements like “half the people have no electricity.” Che’s superhuman achievements include walking for ten days while wounded by “leaning against the trees or the butt of my rifle.” He stops shooting only to cure a sick peasant or teach a compañero how to read. Normally a fine actor, Benicio del Toro seems numbed in the title role. Equally wasted are the talents of Franka Polente (from Run, Lola, Run) as Che’s love interest Tania, and Demian Bichir as Castro.

After a blissful intermission, the second half moves quicker, but there is little context and those unfamiliar with Cuban history may scratch their heads at Che’s split from Castro and what he was doing in Bolivia in the first place. This time, things don’t go so well, and Che’s heroics earn him an unmarked grave in the jungle. According to some, the sporadic applause at the end of the screening was from relief. Reviewers yawned. One called it “long as the Amazon,” while another derided it as a “love letter” to the Argentine revolutionary.

Those expecting a sequel to Motorcycle Diaries (directed by Walter Salles) will be sorely disappointed. That film depicted Che’s picaresque travels as a young man through South America and made made no pretense of historical accuracy, set before the events that made him famous. Soderbergh can’t get off that easily, and his take on the Cuban revolution is laughably biased and simplistic. In real life, Che was a complex, contradictory figure who preached social justice while executing dissidents. Though idealistic, he had an authoritarian streak and was responsible for Cuba’s repressive system of labor camps, which continues to this day. None of this ambiguity---which makes Che a more interesting if less admirable character--- emerges from the mist of hero worship.

With an award-winning director and A-list actors, why has Che not yet been shown in the U.S.? One reason may be the fear of political controversy. While Motorcycle Diaries played to packed houses even in Miami, Soderbergh’s hagiography could well spark protests among those whose relatives were sentenced to the firing squad by Che’s kangaroo courts in the fortress of La Cabaña.

It is sublimely ironic that forty years after his death fighting capitalism, Che has become a lucrative corporate brand used to sell t-shirts and coffee mugs. But even his enemies admired his honesty and lack of hypocrisy. Che would be horrified at this Hollywood-style portrayal of him, if only he could stay awake through the film.