Chapel Hills 15
You've seen the T-shirt — now see the movie. That seems to be the attitude of some toward Steven Soderbergh's portrait of Ernesto "Che" Guevara, the Argentinean revolutionary.
As if Guevara should have foreseen his mug would end up gracing a million college students' chests and should have known better, lest his image be appropriated by those who may not fully understand his actions ... or who may understand and embrace him anyway, to the consternation of their politically disapproving elders.
Here's the thing: You're a fool if you let a single movie dictate what you think. Or, in this case, two movies: Che Part One: The Argentine and Che Part Two: The Guerrilla. Soderbergh's epic was meant to be seen in one almost five-hour sitting, but only Cannes attendees, some critics, and moviegoers on the coasts had that opportunity. Now it comes as two separate admissions. (Part One plays locally through April 9, and Part Two begins April 10.)
In a way, Soderbergh's film — and Benicio Del Toro's complex, sensitive performance in the title role — is all the more interesting for the furor surrounding it. Imagine if the American colonies had been defeated, and 200 years later someone made a film portraying George Washington in a positive light. There would be outcry from some, approval from others, and somewhere, someone would be saying, "But imagine if the colonials had won ..." Sometimes, truth is a matter of perspective.
Here's the thing: Che portrays the world from Guevara's perspective. Soderbergh and Del Toro put us so totally into his head that it's impossible not to sympathize with him. In Part One, it's all about the Cuban revolution and Guevara's rise from a doctor assisting rebels to a leader who grasps the intricacies of guerilla warfare.
From its startling opening scene, of the genteel dinner party at which Guevara begins to plan a revolution with Fidel and Raúl Castro, to the black-and-white footage interspersed throughout of Guevara's visits to New York after the revolution is won, Guevara is vulnerable and human. His asthma hinders treks through jungles, for example, and he is never more self-aware than when he is at his most iconic, talking to the media and addressing the U.N.
Throughout, Soderbergh eschews almost all exposition, leaving us on our own to determine where we may stand. And that's even more true of Part Two, which covers Guevara's second attempt at revolution, in Bolivia. Guevara arrives incognito in South America to jumpstart what he hopes will be a great Latin American revolution, but there's no escaping his own notoriety. We see it in the European journalist (Franka Potente) who tags along with the rebel band and in the harder response his fighters earn from the government merely because Guevara is leading them. This is the grimmer of the films, filled with the brutal months Guevara's band spent hidden in the mountains only to be hunted into a corner. Was it a fruitless endeavor, or did Guevara win even by losing?
Personally, I'm not sure what to make of Ernesto "Che" Guevara, the man. I'm not sure whether I think he was right or wrong or somewhere in between. I know that much must be left out of even a 260-minute telling — that Che is not a complete representation. It's the beginning of a dialogue, not the end of it.