To watch or not to watch the first part of Steven Soderbergh’s Che was one of the questions I wrestled with last Sunday. I haven’t read anything about the new film and haven’t seen any of the trailers. How will the film portray the Argentine medic turned comandante? Will Che Guevara be vilified? Will Che be transformed into a of Rambo in the vein of other Hollywood films about other real-life icons?
Part one of the movie is centered on Che Guevara’s participation in the Cuban revolution. It starts with Che’s meeting with Fidel Castro in Mexico, their trip to Cuba on the ship Granma, and the beginnings of the guerrilla war against the brutal and corrupt US-sponsored Batista dictatorship in the hinterlands of Sierra Maestra.
Most of the film is devoted to depicting the life of the guerrillas with Che: endless trekking through the jungle, training and recruiting, never ending meetings, getting along with the peasants, and yes, gunfights. Inserted in between are interviews and footage of Guevara making political commentaries, parts of which include Che’s stirring anti-imperialist speeches in the United Nations.
The role of the legendary comandante was played by Benicio Del Toro. Why do I mention this? Del Toro does not only look like Che, I have to say his acting paints a convincing portrait of Che, the heroic, if not sickly revolutionary who gets bouts of asthma in between the battles.
But he was not only the idealistic and inspiring leader who knew the value of self-sacrifice. Above all, Che was also aware of the exigencies of the revolution and acted on them. In one scene, Che did not think twice to have two deserters executed. The two extorted money from peasants in the name of the revolution and even raped one of their daughters after leaving the guerrilla army. The reputation of the movement must be defended from bad elements.
After uniting the different anti-Batista groups under Castro and consolidating control of the rural areas from the forces of the dictatorship, the push for Havana commenced. Some of the most exciting scenes are set in the city of Santa Clara, the last of Batista’s stronghold before the revolutionary forces can take Havana: citizens set up barricades in support of the guerrillas, an armored train is ambushed, there is street to street warfare, the guerrillas break through the walls of five houses to enter a church with a commanding view of the city where enemy troops are nestled.
In another scene, masses of people welcome the victorious guerrillas. One of them goes to Che and thanks him for freeing them from the dictatorship. Che replies by saying that it was them, the people, and not the guerrillas, who were responsible for their victory. This year, the Cuban people celebrates the 50th anniversary of their victorious revolution. Today, Cuba boasts of one of the best and most accessible health and educational systems in the world.
My initial worries proved to be unfounded. I am looking forward to seeing part two of Che. ■