Che: Heroic Enigma

2009-11-20 11:32

Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, the man behind the ubiquitous icon on the T-shirt, ­remains shrouded in mystery despite Steven Soderbergh’s 262-minute ­biopic about him.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution and the 42nd year since the death of Guevara. Soderbergh’s film, in two parts, Che: Part 1 and Part 2, earned Benicio Del Toro the best actor accolade at the Cannes Film Festival last year for his portrayal of Guevara, and he earned it. But despite the two films being technically brilliant and Del Toro giving one of the best performances of his career, I still feel as though there should have been a third part – though perhaps I would have baulked at having to sit through it – about the man, not the revolutionary.

The two films are a labour of love for Soderbergh and Del Toro, who also co-produces, and have been in the works for a decade. To do Guevara’s story justice Soderbergh decided it needed to be broken into two films – one covering Che’s involvement in the Cuban Revolution and one chronicling his doomed attempt to kickstart the Bolivian revolution.

The trouble is that the missing years between the end of the first one – Che’s soldiers on their way to Havana in late 1958 – and the beginning of the second part – Che donning a disguise to get into Bolivia undetected in late 1966 – feel like the most interesting part.

In both films the only sign that he is a mortal man is that he is a severe asthmatic who smokes his pipe anyway. Apart from that he never has a drink, never eyes a woman lustfully and never acts irrationally. Which makes this portrayal of him as one-dimensional as the T-shirt, the image for which is derived from the 1960 photograph taken by Alberto Korda at a state funeral in Cuba entitled Guerrillero Heroico.

In Che: Part 1 Che makes a passing comment that his wife and daughter are in Mexico. They are never mentioned again. Then at the start of the second film we get a glimpse of his home life with fellow revolutionary and second wife Aleida March and a clutch of kids. Later he tells a fellow soldier that he has five children. They are never mentioned or seen again. 

Here are the missing bits. Che married Hilda Gadea in 1955 in Mexico and they had a daughter. He left to join Fidel Castro’s 26th of July Movement shortly after and when Hilda arrived in Havana in January 1959 to be reunited with Che, he asked for a divorce so that he could marry his lover Aleida March.

The divorce came through on May 22 1959, he married his lover on June 2. It would have been interesting if the films had explored how his families felt about his personal sacrifices for the greater good. He dropped out of sight in 1965, leaving March with four children, and even before that he was often away on state business, including when he delivered his ­famous 1964 speech at the United Nations.

Guevara’s eldest daughter with March, also called Aleida, along with her brother Camilo, were in South Africa last month lobbying for the release of five Cuban spies in the US. Aleida is a paediatrician in Cuba, while Camilo and Celia are lawyers and Ernesto is a vet. In an interview with The Guardian a few years back Aleida, who was seven when Che was gunned down in Bolivia, admits that Guevara was a stranger to her who brought her sweets. Apparently he donned an array of disguises to see his children. This would have been an interesting aspect of Che’s story to explore.

Also, after Fidel Castro came to power in ­Cuba, Guevara was responsible for delivering justice (usually in the form of firing squads), spearheading land reform and in one year he increased literacy rates among Cubans from 60% to 70% to 96%, an impressive legacy in itself.

Despite the missing personal information, the two films do make an interesting study of Che’s unshakeable ideology and unfaltering self-discipline as well as his fearlessness. The two films are largely based on Che’s 30 000-word handwritten diaries and had Guevara’s biographer Jon Lee Anderson, who famously found Che’s remains in Bolivia in 1997, as a consultant. So, they are blow-by-blow accounts of the military strategies and tough jungle training that led to the success of the Cuban Revolution, and how the environment and a failure to win the hearts and minds of the local population led to bloody failure and ultimately to Guevara’s death in Bolivia.

The films were shot in Spain and Soderbergh used natural light as much as possible, breaking in a new camera called RED. In the production notes Soderbergh says: “Shooting with RED is like hearing The Beatles for the first time. Red sees the way I see. Someday I hope to find out exactly how they made something so technologically advanced seem so organic, so beautifully attuned to that most natural of phenomena – light.”

That’s one thing that cannot be faulted – the beauty of these films, the cinematography and the superb performances, especially from Del Toro and Mexican actor Demián Bichir, who captures the young Castro perfectly. ­Soderbergh guides his cast from jungle terrain to jungle terrain, capturing the drudgery of the lives of these men recruited with a burning ­belief in a better life and spurred on to continue by the fear and respect for their commandant.­ ­Unsurprisingly desertion is rife and the ­punishment is death. How else do you keep men in a state of deprivation obedient – unless they are die-hard idealists like Guevara – without threatening their mortality?

For those interested in the man behind the pop culture icon, these films won’t do. They exhaustively chronicle the actions of Guevara the revolutionary, who is easy to admire for his selflessness, stoicism and unshakeable belief, but difficult to like for the same reasons. To understand how the revolutionary was made you’ll have to rent Walter Salles’ The Motorcycle Diaries, based on Guevara’s travels around his native Argentina in 1951, also based on Guevara’s diaries.

As for the man he’s still an enigma – instantly recognisable by everyone, but seemingly known by few.

Che: Part 1 is now on circuit, Che: Part 2 releases on December 18

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