Revolution on the big screen

January 22, 2009

Jason Farbman reviews the first installment of director Steven Soderbergh's four-and-a-half-hour biopic about revolutionary Che Guevara.

DIRECTOR STEVEN Soderbergh has shown an expansive range throughout his career--willing to take cinematic risks as he uses the capital from the latest installment of the Ocean's 11 series to push through more experimental projects. But in Che: A Revolutionary Life, the nearly four-and-a-half-hour immersion into major events in Ernesto "Che" Guevara's life, he may have produced his most surprising and impressive film yet.

It is stunning and delightful to discover a major motion picture taking up a nuanced study of the revolutionary whose image alternately inspires hope and disgust. Neither deifying nor damning him, A Revolutionary Life sidesteps the bombast and hyperbole often associated with Guevara's life, instead synthesizing years of research to present new ideas to the already crowded field of documentaries and biopic.

Broken into halves in some theaters for easier consumption, the first installment, The Argentine, picks up Che's life at a dinner in Mexico City where he is recruited to Fidel Castro's July 26 Movement. Nowhere is it mentioned where the motivation comes from for Che to agree to risk his life and fight for years in the jungles of the Cuban Sierra Maestra. This is in contrast to the majority of biopics, which take pains to portray every significant event, almost as if there were a preordained path to greatness.

Benicio Del Toro as Che Guevara
Benicio Del Toro as Che Guevara

Had the project been a mini-series, perhaps there would have been time to get into more detail about the radicalizing moments from Che's early life. However, many people already have an idea what those moments looked like, from well-known movies like The Motorcycle Diaries.

Instead, the film subtly suggests a number of realities surrounding the Cuban Revolution. Instead of presenting only the most exciting battles resulting in wins for the July 26 Movement, much time is spent getting across the drudgery of years spent trekking through the jungles of Cuba.

Severely outnumbered, the movement must turn often unarmed, semi-literate peasants into guerrilla fighters. More often than not, that responsibility is shouldered by Che, even though he would rather be on the front lines. When asked what the most important component of a revolutionary is, his answer does not include strength, bravery or cunning. Instead, he replies, "Love. Love of humanity."

Benicio Del Toro is masterful as always in his portrayal of a Che who is exhausted by responsibility and terrible asthma attacks, but whose sheer force of will keeps him going. Post-revolution scenes are interspersed with those from the jungle, with Guevara in New York addressing the United Nations and looking equally exhausted by these responsibilities. Isolated and without an ally--including nations that Cuba has defended against U.S. imperialism--Guevara is forced to play statesman.

Review: Movies

The Argentine, directed by Steven Soderbergh, starring Benicio Del Toro.

Che's eventual return to battle will be presented in the second installment, Guerrilla, which explores his attempts to foment revolution in Bolivia. To fully understand the decisions he made during that time, The Argentine is required viewing. In this way, they don't just share a subject but work as perfect compliments.

If every viewer did not already know that the Cuban Revolution would succeed in toppling Batista, there is little in the jungle scenes that would lead one to believe that success was inevitable. It was this experience--dealing daily with unglamorous and exhausting work, with infrequent signs of encouragement--that laid the basis for Che's insistence on persevering elsewhere.

The Argentine ends on a triumphant note, as the last vestiges of the Batista dictatorship crumble--but even that celebration is somewhat somber. As Che and company head to Havana, they are aware of the work that lies ahead.

The message is that revolutionaries' difficult and frequently unglamorous work needs to continue, even when victories seem small and the prospects for defeating capitalism remote. But that work must include working people everywhere, instead of being enacted by a few on their behalf. The last position we want to find ourselves in after victories--no matter how great--is in isolation, trying in vain to recapture the only tactic we know to have worked.

Further Reading

From the archives