La lucha continúa

14 09 2008

Steven Soderbergh’s Che (aka Guerrilla): two hours eleven minutes in Cuba, 1957-1959, followed by a twenty minute intermission and then two hours eleven minutes in Bolivia, early to mid-1960s, culminating in Che’s assassination. Che (Benicio Del Toro) has asthma, bad; and it gets worse. Most of the film is spent showing us how the loyal machismo friendships developed between Che, Fidel Castro, and the virtually countless men and few women in their revolutionary bands; as well as patiently explaining dozens of planned sorties, detours, backup plans, and everyday events. Every person Che meets gives his name, and the names become overwhelming, far too many to keep in sight. Many, indeed most, of these people get slaughtered by the forces of Batista in Cuba and Barrientos in Bolivia. The fighting is uniformly beleaguered, especially in the extended ravine finale where Che is captured. There are cameo parts by Matt Damon (why?), Julia Ormond (why?), Lou Diamond Phillips (why?), Franka Potente (why?) and, officially, Benjamin Bratt (who did not seem to appear in the film I saw). The revolutionary cause is patiently explained and patiently followed. The images in Part I seem documentary, both because they are intercut with a mixture of actual documentary footage and newly filmed “documentary” footage, and because the events transpire onscreen with no apparent narrative self-consciousness. In Part II, the action has the appearance of being dramatized to a greater extent. It is not evident in the film itself why these distinctions of style are made by the filmmaker.

We become attached to Che and depressed as his courageous battle against imperialist domination becomes weakened, fragments, finally dissipates in the hot mountainous sunlight.

Soderbergh shot the film himself, with great economy of style and an unerring and passionate sensitivity to the variant qualities of light and color which could be obtained on location. In the principal performance, Benicio Del Toro is affecting, hypnotic. It is a flawless performance.

The film never manages to achieve a dramatic structure, and the finale is superfluous and fake in an obvious kind of way. Let it be said that the capitalism this filmic Che wars against, so heroically and so persistently, and the capitalism out of which a film such as this springs, are never reconciled onscreen at all. We take Che’s side through it all, perhaps never quite registering how this story of the people, in which individuals matter far less than the principles of the cause, makes its way to the screen only through the starring vehicle of a principal role, a “lead” character, whose image, if not his name, highlights the work itself in its presentation to the audience. The failure to dramatize–ostensibly a respectful gesture intended to draw our attention to the importance of the common cause Che celebrated–is actually, in the end, as bogus as the crassest advertisement or as the elegant food this Che is invited to devour when he visits the society ladies of New York.

Given the number of characters we meet who have nothing to say and nothing to do but die in valor and ignominy, the film could be shorter: but as it is, we are drawn to feel part of the struggle, indeed drawn to struggle through this motion picture and perhaps to consider ourselves noble for doing so. Che Guevara himself had higher motives than that.

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