You don't see that many movie biographies anymore. There was a time when they were fairly common in both Hollywood and Europe, but now the interest in both making and watching them seems to have almost vanished. My guess is most producers and studios now a days think if there can't be a ton of action in it, there's no point in making a movie. If you think about it, the majority of the movie biographies that have been made recently are once about either sports figures (Ali) or performers of some kind (I Walk The Line and Ray). Each of those have set pieces like fights or concerts built in which guarantee there will be more than just people on the screen talking.
So to say I was surprised when I learned somebody was making a movie about Ernesto Guevara, known to most of the world by his nickname “Che” (which is an Argentinian slang word for friend) would be something of an understatement. First of all, the United States is one country where you can definitely be assured that Che's popularity is not widespread, if in fact he's not considered an outright enemy. Who in that country is going to have either the interest or the money to make a movie about a man who spent most of his adult life fighting against the spread of what he called "American Imperialism" in South and Latin America? As it turns out, nobody, aside from director Steven Soderbergh in the Anglo American film community was interested in a movie filmed primarily in Spanish about one of the most well known figures of the twentieth century. In fact it was the actor who ended up depicting Che, Benicio Del Toro, from Puerto Rico, who first proposed the project and was the driving force behind its development.
Originally released theatrically in two parts, The Argentinian, which deals with his time in Cuba during and after the revolution, and Guerrilla, detailing his attempts to bring the revolution to Bolivia in South America, IFC Films released a three disc DVD set, Che: Collector's Edition, in January 2010. The set contains both parts of the movie and a third disc of special features, primarily interviews with those responsible for its creation; Del Toro, Soderbergh, and author Jon Lee Anderson whose biography Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life inspired the movie. The special features disc also contains a typical "making of" the movie short about the first film, but there was nothing on the second film so it felt like sort of an incomplete package.
However, any disappointment felt at the special features can easily be overlooked by the quality of the film itself. (As I watched the two discs one after the other I'm treating it as one movie not two) While some might feel slightly daunted by a four hour plus movie that's almost entirely in Spanish with English subtitles, watching it without a break gives you a far better idea of the scope of Guevara's life and his absolute dedication to his ideals.
We first meet him in 1964 when he travelled to New York City to address the United Nations on behalf of his adopted country, Cuba. During his visit he was interviewed by reporter Lisa Howard (played by Julia Ormond) who questions him about the Cuban revolution. The interview, his subsequent speech to the United Nations, and the various activities he participated in while staying in New York serve as the impetus for flashbacks to the 1950's, beginning with a dinner party in Mexico City where he first met Fidel Castro (Demian Bichir).
We then follow Che as he and Fidel lead eighty-two men to Cuba to begin the struggle to overthrow the military dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. Under Batista American corporations owned most of the land which they used for the production of sugar cane and as plantations. The majority of Cubans were uneducated and lived in poverty with no access to medical care and little chance of improving their lot in life. The major objective of the revolution, as stated by Castro and Guevara, was land reform, which would involve the redistribution of land owned by the big companies to the people of Cuba. They also promised universal education and medical treatment, running water and electricity, and a general over all increase in the standard of living for the poor.
The movie shows that right from the beginning, even when they were still only a small force in danger of starvation and death, the guerillas under Che and Castro began implementing what they could of their platform. They established a school for those who joined them so they could learn to read and write – one early scene in the movie shows Guevara telling people they can only join up with the rebels if they have their own weapon and know how to read and write. Once they had the facilities to teach people the guerrillas had to go to school and do studies while they were on the trail. When two guerrillas are caught stealing from local peasants, and raping and killing a family, Guevara has them executed. The revolution is being fought for these people, and anybody who attacks them is an enemy of the revolution.
There is very little in the movie about either Che's personal life or his life as a government official in the Cuban government. While critics of Che and Cuba will claim this is to cover up the deaths he was responsible for, there are allusions to them made at points in the movie. However, this is not a complete portrait of the man, it is the story of the beginning and end of his life as a revolutionary.
We see how as a young man how he was prepared to give up the security of a middle class existence as a doctor in Argentina to go and live in the jungles of Cuba at great personal hardship (he suffered horribly from asthma and at times he is pictured as being almost completely incapacitated by it). In 1966 he leaves his family and his secure position in the Cuban government to go live in the jungles of Bolivia in order to attempt the same type of campaign he had been part of in the 1950's.
The picture we do get of him is that of a man singularly obsessed by his vision to the exclusion of anything else. It is easy to see how he could very easily have ordered the execution of people he thought were conspiring against what he believed in. Those who see this movie as being an overly positive representation of Che, do so only because individual acts are not depicted.
However, ask yourself what lengths do you think a person as possessed as the man shown in this movie would go to in order to see his dreams come true? This is a movie about a dedicated revolutionary who will stop at nothing in his attempt to shape the world according to his ideals. Whether we agree with his beliefs or not, we can't help but realize somebody this blinkered in their world view is as potentially ruthless to those he perceives opposing him as he is compassionate towards those he believes he is fighting for.
Benicio Del Toro does a magnificent job of bringing that dichotomy to life. We see a man who is genuine in his caring for people and sincere in his efforts to make the world better for those who are suffering from hardships. His Che is at his most humane and genuine when he's helping the poor in either Cuba or Bolivia. Yet put the same man in front of the General Assembly of the United Nations and he turns into someone you're sure would cut down anyone he thought stood in his way.
Del Toro also manages to capture that which has made Che the inspirational figure he remains to so many people around the world today. While he doesn't appear to have the charisma of someone like Castro, or any other renowned political leader you can think of, his quiet dedication and his ability to relate to almost anyone he meets on one level or another, make him someone people will not only listen to, but will willingly follow anywhere.
To oppressed people around the world Che Guevara remains a figure of inspiration and hope to this day. To others, he will always be a villain and a murderer. Any film biography made about an individual of this nature is always going to have its detractors who claim it misrepresented who and what he was. Che (The Argentinian and Guerrilla) doesn't do the impossible and find some sort of middle ground which will satisfy those on both sides of the argument that surrounds his status in history.
What it does do is give audiences a view of a man who was absolutely dedicated to an ideal at the expense of everything else; his health, his family, and in the end, his life. A good biography should present the facts of a person's life and leave us to evaluate them in order to reach our own conclusions. Che accomplishes that objective even with its rather narrow focus. Dynamic, entertaining, and informative, you couldn't ask for anything more of a movie biography.
(Originally posted March 2010)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.