Saturday, April 03, 2010

"Che" is not about what you want it to be about

There is a moment deep into in the second half of the two-part, four-hour epic biopic "Che" when Che, in the middle of the jungle in the midst of his badly failing guerrilla campaign in Bolivia, turns to one of the other guerrillas and says, "I'll write Sartre and Bertrand Russell to establish a worldwide fund."

Of course, we know how the story turned out, and it wasn't good for Ernesto "Che" Guevara. And by that point in the movie, it's obvious that he is making a desperation move. But while it's a stray comment that the movie never revisits, it's also a very clear indication that Che, by this point in his life, had himself bought into the myth of Che. I'd argue that this is one of the central themes of the movie -- how Che came to believe in the same romanticized guerrilla-hero pap that has launched a million t-shirts and dorm-room posters. And, ultimately, how badly that myth served him and the other revolutionary fighters, and indeed the people of Bolivia and elsewhere.

A lot has been made about the fact that "Che" is a movie with virtually no emotional content, an "anti-biopic." And it's true -- in this respect it's the opposite of "The Motorcycle Diaries," in which Young Che was portrayed as an empathetic, sensitive champion of the peasant farmer whose travel experience as a young man launched him on the path to glorious revolution. I hated "The Motorcycle Diaries" more than I hate most biopics, but the basic problem is the same throughout the genre: over-reliance on facile psychological explanations for every single decision made later by the character. "Che" does none of that at all, and that's a good thing. It's much more concerned in the "what" and the "how" -- battle tactics, the military campaign's movement from place to place -- than it is with the "why."

The first part of the movie is the Cuban revolution, ending with victory over Batista; the second half is in Bolivia, ending with Che's execution. Its central purpose is to provide a study in contrasts between the two -- differences it underlines with differences in form between the two, in color schemes and even technical things like aspect ratio. But also in the facts it dramatizes: In Cuba, revolutionaries brokered deals among peasant groups and got their buy-in. Their forces grew, and their tactics won the day. The wind was at their backs. In Bolivia, meanwhile, everything that could go wrong did. Peasants rebuffed Che. The government forces were well-organized, and the CIA was involved. The guerrillas' numbers dwindled and Che died a failure.

But while the second half is simply a chronological the story of the campaign, the first half of the movie is intercut with scenes of Che's speech at the United Nations in 1964, and with his interviews in New York with fawning journalists asking questions about what it's like to be the personification of the revolutionary warrior, how it feels to be so awesome and so on. Those sections of the movie are about the creation of Che-the-myth. And in the movie's second half, we see the result of it.

Now to be sure, it does seem like director Steven Soderbergh, one of my favorites, and actor Benecio Del Toro, also an amazing actor, were playing a sort of double game in the promotions of the movie. Both of them said some stupid things about Che, and they held off from actually making moral judgments about Che. They promoted the movie heavily in Cuba and Latin America (including with a fairly disgusting meeting between Del Toro and Hugo Chavez), and especially given that the movie is in Spanish, you have to assume there was a bit of a commercial motivation for not coming out and saying, you know, "Che was a brutal murderer and no one should aspire to be like him." But who knows. Maybe they actually don't believe that.

And for anyone who would look to "Che" as some kind of comprehensive biography of the man, it must be said that there are some unforgivably large omissions. The defining characteristic of Che's character was sadistic brutality. As a revolutionary, he made his name and his reputation as an enforcer, a staunch Stalinist ideologue and, finally, an enthusiastic executioner of dissidents, political enemies and anyone in his way. This movie deals with that side of Che very little, and that's an understandable disappointment for people who want to see a film that grapples with the actual moral content of the man's life.

Still, there's a big difference between this movie and the pastel, romanticized Che of "The Motorcycle Diaries." That movie did take a strong moral stance and just happened to get it exactly wrong. No doubt some critics wanted to see something more like a corrective to that vision of Che, and Soderbergh's movie isn't that.

But then I think, would I really have wanted to see the movie that is all about the many summary executions Che oversaw, his ideological rigidity and his Soviet allegiance and narcissistic martyrdom complex? I am not sure I would. As opaque as it can be, this movie is actually in a lot of ways more compelling than that one would have been. And in some some subtle ways, this "Che" does depict the man who actively built his image as revolutionary hero, and who ultimately was brought down when he came to believe in it himself. That's a more complicated story than either the one that casts Che as a Christ-like hero, or the one that is all about what a villain he was. Che was not a good man, but "Che" is a good movie.


Anonymous said...

"El que sirve a una revoluciĆ³n ara en el mar" are words that echoed (and do echo) in the ears of most revolutionary leaders in latin america. It may be something you need to consider before you begin to criticize Che's "sadistic brutality".

Rob said...

"He who serves the revolution plows in the sea," Simon Bolivar. I don't really get what that has to do with Che's Stalinism, but whatever.