Che's revolution without the hype


Che (M). Running time: 131 minutes (Part One), 133 minutes (Part Two). Director: Steven Soderbergh. Starring: Benicio Del Toro.

Che, Benicio Del Toro, Steven Soderbergh'Che Christ' has been a popular image among liberal Christians; the face of Christ melded with that of Ernesto Guevara as seen on those ubiquitous Che T-shirts. While it is common for martyrs in literature and popular culture to be cast as Christ figures, in this instance, Christ the radical is cast as a 'Che figure'. It is testament to the virility of Che as a revolutionary symbol that his image is used to augment this understanding of Christ.

In the biopic, Che, Steven Soderbergh takes Guevara as far from myth and symbol as possible. Rather than a rousing anthem, Che is a forensic account of military action. It shies from the sensational and even the political. It presupposes much historical knowledge as it recounts with clinical detachment two opposing arcs of Che's life: first, the momentous Marxist revolution in Cuba; second, the ill-fated attempt to achieve the same in Bolivia.

Che is portrayed by Del Toro, who, while too old (Guevara is in his late 20s when the film commences; Del Toro was pushing 40 at the time of filming), blends chameleon-like into Che's world. Del Toro's Che is an everyman who has grown into his leadership role in Castro's revolution, after first shaking his insecurities about being an 'outsider' (Che was an Argentine). Che's habit of greeting comrades by name, with an embrace, hints at why he was well loved. Del Toro's intense performance of Che's strangling asthma attacks underline his human frailty.

But this is no E! True Hollywood Story. The film neither condemns nor adulates Che and his beliefs, and director Soderbergh asks his audience to invest much. Che is four and a half hours, shot with hand-held cameras, and in Spanish with English subtitles. While it is divided into two segments, Part One and Part Two, it is still heavy going, particularly for those who are not well versed in South and Central American political history. But effort is rewarded; Che certainly leaves a lasting impression.

Part One is based on Che's memoir Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War. It lingers on the minutiae of guerilla warfare, culminating in a tense recreation of the decisive battle at Santa Clara. It has a ramshackle but comprehensive feel, like facts and details scribbled on scraps of paper and scattered across a desktop for academic scrutiny. It has striking features, such as recreations of Che's legendary 1964 UN appearance.

Throughout Part One, Che, in a voiceover lifted from his 1964 interview with investigative journalist Lisa Howard, provides a few narrative signposts and samples of his profound rhetoric. But there is scant information regarding either the activities of Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista or those of Fidel Castro after seizing power. In other words the motives of neither the revolutionaries, nor of those that opposed them, are fully explored. The film therefore offers no moral judgment of Che's beloved cause. The viewer is expected to bring this to the table.

Part Two, based on Che's Bolivian Diary, is more linear than Part One and has the relentless intensity of a tragedy. Che arrives in Bolivia to discover that the populace is resistant to an uprising, and that the Communist Party is reluctant to support an armed struggle. The massacre of discontented miners (revealed via radio broadcast) sends an iron-fisted message that undermines Che's revolutionary cause. Government propaganda through the media and the involvement of the US military turn the screws of Che's failure. Both Che and the revolution are doomed.

Soderbergh's commitment to de-politicising his account is both a strength and a weakness. Not only the history but also the present of many South and Central American states are replete with examples of exploitation of the poor, government corruption, and the meddling, for better or worse, of the self-interested United States. Che's story could have been used to condemn this kind of injustice, interrogate the viability of socialism — properly realised — as a solution, or stir up alternative kinds of action. Instead, Che is compelling and memorable, but inert.

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street. His articles and reviews have been published by Melbourne's The Age, Inside Film, the Brisbane Courier-Mail and The Big Issue. He was Chair of the Interfaith Jury at the 2009 St George Brisbane International Film Festival.

Topic tags: che guevara, Cuba, revolution, marxism, socialism, Steven Soderbergh, Benicio Del Toro, bolivia



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Existing comments

Terrific review Tim. Despite the mass appropriation of Che's image on t-shirts the world over, I hope the true revolutionary/radical ideals he espoused are recognised.

It's particularly timely to consider what Che stood for, esp in the light of what is occuring in Honduras. Che is a powerful symbol, but the people of Central and South America continue to prove that they are the real force to be reckoned with. The people of Venezuela peacefully moved to return Chavez in 2002, just as the Honduran people are attempting to do now with Zelaya.

We have much to learn and respect from the people of one of the most exploited continents on earth. And we have to realise the role we have played in this exploitation. Nike and Reebok both manufacture in Honduran sweatshops, ensuring they make maximum profit, we get 'decent' prices, and Honduran workers get squat.

I agree with Tim that Soderbergh's movie is not interested in examining this injustice or the brutality of capitalism and imperialism either then or now, but I hope we the audience are.

Natalie | 30 September 2009  

Tim Kroenert laments the lost opportunity of Che's story not being used to show how socialism "properly realised" could be a solution to all the ills of South and Central America.

Tim Kroenert is either unaware of or ignores the fact that this man was a tyrannical and brutal murderer.

Guevara's story could not be used in anyway except as a lesson in how not to follow the example of Christ.

Patrick James | 30 September 2009  

I disagree with Natalie entirely. I find Tim's review of the film lamentably one-sided. As Patrick James mentions, Che was a man of extreme violence. Natalie appears to be caught up in the Hollywood, leftist myth.

Natalie, you say that the film does not examine the injustice and brutality of capitalism and imperialism, but hope that we do. If you would like to examine the injustice and brutality of socialism "properly realised", why not try Cuba?

You could do worse than read this article. It gives some interesting background into the film, showing that the production was closely supervised by the Cuban regime. It also tells a few tales from Che's life that his PR people find somewhat troublesome. Then again when people are willing to ignore such events altogether, you probably don't need a PR machine at all.

John Ryan | 30 September 2009  

Likening Christ to Che Guevara is almost as grotesque as likening Him to Pol Pot.

Sylvester | 01 October 2009  

That part of his life when he murdered many of his former friends is not addressed in this movie – this is typical of heroes by hindsight. It is a travesty, a fiction… and in truth a failure.

Dermott Ryder | 02 October 2009  

This review most certainly does not compare Che to Christ. What it does do is discuss the power of Che as revolutionary icon, and the testimony to the power of this icon is that the revolutionary Che figure has been melded with the image of Christ to suggest the revolutionary aspect of Jesus. Many of us have seen this reproduced image.

It is easy to get caught up in an argument re the ethics of Che Guevara, or indeed the current state of Cuba. It is certainly true that one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist, and that mythology and counter mythology surrounds the figure of Guevara. My reading and understanding of the gospels is that Christ espoused non violent means of change. Che Guevara most definitely believed that armed struggle was a necessity for freedom.

As followers of Christ we may question this path. It is however, undeniable that Che Guevara exists as a point of inspiration to many people, esp oppressed south or central American peoples, and that his legacy continues to have a powerful impact.

Natalie | 05 October 2009  

Natalie, let's not be frightened to call a spade a spade. I find "myth" and "counter myth" evasive terms. Che killed people. He did not do this as a freedom fighter, but as a brutal tyrant. It was not only former enemies that he shot without trial, but former allies who committed the sin of disagreeing with him.

That he remains an inspiration to any people anywhere is due either to their refusal to acknowledge his barbarity, or because they agree with his barbarity.

As followers of Christ, I would have thought there was little need to question his path. We should condemn it outright.

Patrick James | 06 October 2009  

It is clear that Patrick James' and John Ryan's reading of this review has been heavily tainted by their personal biases. Where exactly does Tim Kroenert 'lament the lost opportunity of Che's story not being used to show how socialism could be a solution', or commend Che's actions as heroic? He does suggest the film could have 'interrogated the viability of socialism', but an interrogation could be used to condemn as easily as it could be used to celebrate. That would depend on the views of the filmmaker.

In fact the review suggests that 'the motives of neither the revolutionaries, nor of those that opposed them, are fully explored', and that the film 'neither condemns nor adulates Che'. This is a very even-handed assessment. In fact readers on the far left would probably criticise the reviewer for being too conservative!

I also think it is a great shame that the responses to Natalie's comments have chosen to take issue with her ideology, and completely ignore the far more important point she makes about the particular, current injustices in Honduras, and the tacit complicity of we in the Western in this injustice. Why not have a constructive conversation about this, instead of trying to start a slagging match?

Charles Boy | 07 October 2009  

Charles Boy, reread Tim's last paragraph. He talks of the ills, past and present, in South and Central America. He then says that Che's story "could have been used to" condemn and solve these ills. This is why I say he laments the film as a lost opportunity.

On another point, neither I nor Patrick James, the two posters you mention by name, wrote that Tim had said Che's actions were heroic. Although I cannot avoid the conclusion that Tim sees merit in Che's life and actions.

I would prefer to think that I am not writing through the prism of my biases, but of my informed opinions. I don't intend to start a slagging match with anyone. But I do like a robust exchange of ideas. By all means let's talk about the current injustices in Honduras, or any other country you care to name. Let's discuss the source of it, be it Western, Eastern, local or from wherever.

But if people's ideologies are off limits, then there would not be much to talk about. My post to Natalie was simply to challenge her opinion that Che's life and ideas were worthy of anything other than repudiation.

John Ryan | 07 October 2009  

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