Like Byron, the English poet who went off to Greece and perished in the struggle to overthrow tyrants, Ernesto “Che” Guevara is a prototype of the public intellectual who dies trying to apply ideas. “Che is fairly intellectual for a Latino,” stated a CIA report. Even before his execution, in 1967, the bearded Argentine physician turned itinerant revolutionary stared out from T-shirts and posters around the world. He is the subject of several films, most notably The Motorcycle Diaries and Ernesto Che Guevara: The Bolivian Diary. But, watching Che, the latest, longest effort, I kept flashing to Bananas, Woody Allen’s spoof of a hairy guerrilla who emerges from jungle insurgency to wow crowds in New York.
Audiences at Cannes were impressed by Che’s ambition. It clocked in at about four hours, which makes one hope that, after devoting 320-plus minutes to a man who did not reach his 40th birthday, director Steven Soderbergh is not commissioned by Mel Brooks to do a biopic of his Two-Thousand-Year-Old Man. In the United States, Che is being shown in two installments. Part One is 129 minutes, Part Two a mere 128 minutes. At that rate, Part 90 would have made a tolerable short. Instead of saying that Che dramatizes its namesake’s role in the Cuban Revolution and, later, a disastrous attempt to foment revolt in Bolivia, it would be more accurate to state that it records it. Soderbergh shows scant regard for shaping his material as drama.
After an opening montage of merriment and misery under Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista, Part One moves to Mexico City where, on July 13, 1955, Raul Castro (Rodrigo Santoro) introduces Guevara to his brother Fidel (Bichir). It does not take much effort for the cigar-puffing Cuban to persuade his new acquaintance to join him in toppling a corrupt régime sustained by 40,000 troops. We then jump to November 26, 1956, when Castro, Guevara, and 78 others sail to Cuba. A voiceover, from an interview Che gives in New York in 1964, informs us that only 12 will survive the two-year war led by the 26th of July Movement. Village after village is conquered, and Che goes from medic to fighter to commandante, but the film shows no character development. Though we are told that he left a wife and child, unseen, behind in Mexico, Benicio Del Toro’s Che conveys no sense of sacrifice. Though pensive, he offers little beyond martial slogans (¡Patria o muerte!), and no intellectual evolution. “I always knew why I was fighting,” he assures an interviewer. Shot in Spanish, the film seems a meticulously accurate reenactment of the violent campaign that installed Fidel in power 50 years ago, but the Cuban Revolution remains an abstraction, fought by interchangeable scraggly men for nebulous reasons. “I believe in mankind,” Che explains.
Part One ends before the triumphal procession into Havana, before Che administers mass executions, before Fidel chafes at sharing fame, and before Che sets off on insurgencies in the Congo and Venezuela. Part Two focuses on Che’s final 341 days, when he is hunted down by the Bolivian army aided by the CIA. He botched the project in Bolivia and hurt the peasants he came to liberate. “The road is long and full of difficulties,” wrote Che in 1965. Che at least gets that truth right. •