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March 19, 2009

The importance of being Ernesto: Che: Part One & Part Two - Steven Soderbergh

Posted by Brendan Simms

Che: Part One & Part Two
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
certificate 15, 2008

In the fifty years since he burst onto the world stage during the Cuban Revolution, Ernesto "Che" Guevara has become an iconic global figure. His face graces millions of T-shirts, it looks down from marketing posters and billboards.

There is a highly commercial Che Guevara Store, with Che Guevara T-Shirts and Merchandise - "All Che Guevara merchandise is officially licensed". There are Che cafes and restaurants, and even Che Clubs as far apart as Dallas and St. Petersburg. He has become, in short, the epitome of commercialised radical chic. It came as a pleasant surprise, therefore, that Steven Soderbergh's new two-part epic Che is not a shallow and meretricious attempt to cash in on the glamorous myth. There is no sensationalism, no romance, no moralizing and little action. As far as I can see no obvious liberties are taken with the facts.

To be sure, Soderbergh leaves us in no doubt that his subject was heroic. He ambles around the jungle, dispensing medical aid to the unfortunate peasants, pays for his food, and - most importantly of all - cajoles and encourages his increasingly fractitious band of fighters. He is stoic in adversity, and incorruptible in victory as when towards the end of Part I he orders one of his men to return a swanky automobile looted from an enemy "sniper".

Yet there is ambivalence, too: confronted by the need to maintain discipline, he remarks that "we execute, we don't murder", a statement which the film delivers neither sententiously, nor archly but in a matter-of-fact tone.

By the time we reach Part II, moreover, Che has had to compromise some of his ideals, when he welcomes a sixteen-year old Bolivian boy fighter, having sent two Cuban youths of the same age back to school in Part I. All this is depicted against the inexorable decline of the hero's health, which starts with a perpetual and rather pathetic sniffling in Part I, and ends with the disabling asthmatic attacks which laid him low for much of the Bolivian campaign. Benicio del Toro gets this sense of fragility and inner strength across in a performance which must have taken a lot out of him.

Some things are swept under the carpet. Nothing is made of the notorious - and continuing - homophobia of the Cuban Revolution: the nearest we get is a brief moment in Part I when those who opt out of the column are dismissed as "faggots". One wonders how that went down in the Café Che's of the Bay area.

An unfortunate omission is the Fidel Castro-Che relationship, which merely ticks over in Part I and is not explored once victory was won. A pity, because there has been plenty of informed discussion about whether Che's move to Bolivia was driven in part by disillusionment with the peacetime realities of building a "just" society in Cuba after Batista had been driven out. There also seems to have been a strategic disagreement similar to that between Stalin and Trosky, with Fidel pleading in favour of "socialism in one country", for the moment at least, while Che believed that the revolution should be exported to the rest of Latin America, and indeed around the world.

In this context, the greatest failure of the film is to provide the necessary context. The director seems to presuppose that viewers will be familiar with Che's Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War and his Bolivian Diary, which have been republished to co-incide with the release of the film.

In Part I, Soderbergh can just about get away with this because most of us vaguely know about Castro and Batista. In Part II, however, the viewer is simply pitched into the South American jungle with virtually no indication of what Che was trying to achieve beyond some nebulous "revolution" or "justice". We need to know that he went to Bolivia, the "Switzerland of South America" because it bordered on so many other countries in the region and was thus the ideal base from which to spread the revolution. We should be told that Regis Debray, who briefly bumbles onto the set, was crucial to Che's plans for globalising the struggle and bringing it back to Europe with him. His distress on hearing of Debray's arrest, which is palpable in the Bolivian Diary, otherwise makes no sense.

Some background is also essential to understanding why Part II ends, unlike the first part, with Che's ignominious capture and execution - or is it murder (?) - by the Bolivian army. Soderbergh does bring out the innate distrust of the peasantry, and their general dislike of "foreigners", which the Argentine Che very much was. But the broader reasons for his failure remain obscure. Che proved unable to build the hoped-for coalition with disaffected elements within the country. Here the film's handling of the sceptical communist leader Monje is no help at all: the viewer has to infer what is happening from a few muffled exchanges in which Monje warns that he will expel party faithful who join Che.

Moreover, Bolivia was not Cuba: there Che faced not a straightforward Batista-style dictatorship, but an elected government which, for all its faults, had much deeper roots tan the revolutionaries trying to bring it down. Until Che appeared, bringing the Americans in his wake, the hated "yankees" were not much in evidence.

In Cuba on the other hand, as even the briefest glance at the pre-revolutionary Havana skyline reveals, the US was oppressively ubiquitous. But perhaps Soderbergh himself senses this. Very near the end of Part II, the officer interrogating Che asks "what made you think you would succeed"? After some two and a half hours, it is a question to which his film had still not provided an answer.

Dr Brendan Simms is Professor in the History of International Relations at the Centre of International Studies at the University of Cambridge and co-President of the Henry Jackson Society.

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