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Guerrilla in the Mist

Four and a half hours in, Che Guevara is as hard to see as ever.

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CHE Part 1: the argentine, CHE PART 2: GUERRILLA ss Directed by Steven Soderbergh Written by Peter Buchman and Benjamin A. van der Veen

Pay a visit to TheCheStore.com—"For All Your Revolutionary Needs!"—and you'll find Ernesto "Che" Guevara's likeness printed on everything from T-shirts, tank tops, and hoodies to wallets, key chains, and lighters. The irony of a Marxist guerrilla becoming a merchandising phenomenon, which both exalts and degrades the ideals he fought for, is already well noted. But the Che craze also raises the bar for anyone hoping to dramatize his life. Flattened into two dimensions, Guevara can be many things to many people, to the point where he means nothing at all. Rendering him in three dimensions, against the backdrop of his times, a filmmaker faces the challenge of reconciling his many, contradictory selves—the doctor and the executioner, the rebel and the bureaucrat, Jesus Christ and Josef Stalin. Perhaps the only way to rescue Che Guevara from his empty fame is to pin him down as a man.

With The Motorcycle Diaries (2004), director Walter Salles neatly sidestepped this challenge by confining himself to the prerevolutionary Guevara (Gael Garcia Bernal), an Argentine medical student bumming around South America. The narrow historical parameters enabled Salles to indulge the idealized view of Guevara as a patron saint of the poor, and the movie grossed $57 million worldwide. Now Benicio Del Toro steps into the role in Steven Soderbergh's two-part epic Che, which opens this week at Landmark's Century Centre. Like The Motorcycle Diaries, each part focuses on a discrete period in Guevara's life: the first covers his great triumph, the Cuban Revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power, the second his great failure, the Bolivian campaign that ended with his capture and execution in 1967. But unlike Salles, Soderbergh makes a serious effort to get past the mythology with a detailed and relentlessly prosaic study of Che's political and military tactics.

The difficulty of trapping Guevara in a few cans of film is evident from the movie's mushrooming genesis. As Dennis Lim reported in a recent New York Times piece, Che was originally conceived as the story of Guevara's Bolivian adventure, with Terrence Malick, that poet of the wilderness (The Thin Red Line, The New World), directing. But when Soderbergh took over as director, he found the isolated Bolivian story too lacking in context, and an early script by Benjamin A. van der Veen was revamped by Peter Buchman (Eragon, Jurassic Park III) into a two-and-a-half hour movie that integrated the Cuban Revolution. After that became unwieldy, the filmmakers decided to bite the bullet and turn Che into two separate features, each running about 135 minutes (the version I've seen). For commercial release they've been trimmed to about 128 minutes each and they'll be separated by an intermission; they'll premiere on cable this Wednesday, January 21, as part of the Independent Film Channel's on-demand service.

When a project like this rolls into town, people often ask me which part they should see, but Che Part 1: The Argentine and Che Part 2: Guerrilla are so tightly conceived as elements of a comparison-contrast thesis that there's no point in watching either one by itself. The Argentine offers a little more historical and political perspective, framed as it is by black-and-white sequences of Guevara's hackle-raising 1964 trip to New York City to address the United Nations on Castro's behalf. There are also some early scenes of Guevara's first meeting with Castro at a Mexico City dinner party in the summer of 1955 and of the tiny rebel force sailing toward Cuba aboard the Granma the following year. But most of the action takes place on the ground as the guerrillas make their way from the Sierra Maestra to the city of Santa Clara, where Guevara's resounding victory sealed the fate of the Batista government (and allows Soderbergh to cut loose finally with some exciting action sequences).

Guevara was a brilliant military tactician, but the primary insight of The Argentine is how clearly he understood the political imperatives of a guerrilla campaign. "This is what it means to be part of revolution," he tells his men as they cart their wounded along with them instead of leaving them behind. He orders his soldiers to respect the peasants they encounter and makes use of his medical skills to treat the sick. When new recruits arrive he accepts only those who can read, and he insists that his revolutionaries study when they're not on duty. It's a different story in Guerrilla, where Guevara sneaks into Bolivia in late 1966 to mobilize another popular rebellion. Despite his heroic stature among the men, they pillage from supplies, fight among themselves, and desert when things get tough. Foolishly, Guevara establishes his training camp in the remote Nancahuazu region, far from the oppressed miners who were the flashpoint of Bolivia's revolutionary unrest, and as a result he fails to develop the popular support critical to his success.

The project wouldn't come close to working without Del Toro, whose complex take on Guevara won him the best actor prize at the Cannes film festival. With his etched brow and haunted gaze, Del Toro can give the impression of someone hemmed in by his own worries and weaknesses (21 Grams, Things We Lost in the Fire), but in this case he suggests a man transfixed by a distant point on the horizon—a socialist utopia encompassing all of Latin America—and more than willing to arrange everyone and everything around him on the path that leads there. At the same time he's a man of some compassion: for every scene of him reprimanding his men there's one in which he plays with children in a village or gently adjudicates a silly spat between two rebels.

Unfortunately he's the only real character in the movie, which may explain why Che, for all its historical rigor, ultimately feels like an elaborate term paper for an undergrad poli-sci class. "I didn't want to deal with his personal life," Soderbergh told the Times. Yet in his constant effort to take the next hill, Soderbergh brushes aside even Che's personal relationships that were bound up in the revolution. Despite the gargantuan running time, the Cubans and Bolivians who risked their lives alongside Guevara are never individualized; one rebel in The Argentine is nicknamed "Little Cowboy" because of his western boots, but when he dies in the Battle of Santa Clara, the boots were all I could remember. Che's only substantial scene with Aleida March (Catalina Sandino Moreno), the Cuban rebel who became his second wife, plays like a job interview. Even Fidel Castro (Demian Bichir), whose grand friendship and ongoing dialogue with Guevara had enormous historical impact, never amounts to much besides a beard and a cigar.

This diminution of the individual in favor of an intellectual master plan leaves an unpleasant aftertaste of Stalinism. I can't imagine that Soderbergh intended this, though it's only fair to note that his two-part structure conveniently leapfrogs Guevara's days as commander of La Cabaña, a fortress prison in Havana, where he ordered the execution without due process of at least 179 Batista loyalists. In The Argentine, Che defends the use of executions in his address to the UN, but this is juxtaposed only with a jungle sequence in which two rebels, a deserter and a rapist, face a firing squad. Also missing are Che's two documented executions of fellow rebels in Cuba—Eutimio Guerra, an informer, and Aristidio, a peasant who wanted to go home. Including these incidents might have made Guevara more multi-dimensional, if less admirable, and forced the question of whether the social justice he so craved was worth the human cost. On the other hand, maybe they were too personal.v

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