Viva la Revolution!
Argentinian revolutionary Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara has become an icon of the modern age, his image adorning t-shirts and posters the world over. But it’s likely that many of those familiar with his image have only a sketchy idea of Guevara’s true place in and impact on Latin American history. They, and indeed anyone with even a passing interest in the legend of Che, should indulge in Steven Soderbergh’s epic two-parter which follows the man from idealist to guerrilla to one of the most important men in Fidel Castro’s Cuba.
The first great decision Soderbergh made was to split the movie into two fairly-lengthy halves, rather than trying to cram all of Che’s life into a ‘greatest hits’ single feature. The second was to cast Del Toro in the lead role, as his is an absolutely masterful performance, a tour de force portrayal that gets under the skin of Che without resorting the charicature. And that’s not an easy task given that, in recent years, Guevara’s pop culture status has overshadowed his actual life, particularly in the West. Indeed, it’s impossible to talk about Che without stopping first at Del Toro – it’s hard to imagine another actor with the natural talent, onscreen presence and absolute dedication to fully command such a sweeping role. He is omnipresent throughout the film’s entire four-plus hours running time and, despite his character’s debilitating asthma, manages to dominate every scene without overshadowing the wider picture.
And that picture is very wide indeed. In Part One, we see Guevara travelling to Cuba with Fidel Castro (Demian Bichir), one of 80 revolutionaries with a shared goal to overthrow the country’s corrupt dictator Fulgencio Batista. Che soon proves to be a major asset to the movement, throwing himself into the struggle and becoming beloved by both his comrades and the Cuban people. This weight of popular support helped the guerrillas take the country, overthrow the government and assume control of Cuba.
Part Two tells an altogether different story. It’s 1967, almost a decade after the Cuban uprising, and Che is ensconced in the leadership and has a wife and five children. He is still determined to bring revolution to the rest of Latin America, and travels to Bolivia to lead a popular movement there. But things don’t go to plan; the country’s people don’t want revolution, the guerrillas don’t want to fight and the army are far more mobilized than they were in Cuba. Yet Che maintains his integrity and his belief in the cause, even as he marches further towards inevitable doom.
Throughout, Soderbergh avoids glamorizing or idealising Che’s struggle; we see the realities and hardships of life on the front line of revolution, told through the minutiae of gun maintenance, eking out small rations and tending to the sick in horrendous conditions. And there’s a definite focus on Che as fighter, rather than as man – there are brief snatches of him with his family, but apart from that the film is resolutely focused on Guevara’s actions. Rightly so, as Soderbergh’s aim is to portray this extraordinary time in history through the eyes of the man who helped make it all happen. And his direction is flawless; choppy editing, a muddy pallet and a camera that gets up close and personal with every facet of the fight, however small, effectively making the viewer part of the revolution. It’s certainly of benefit to watch both parts together, to get a full overview of the highs and lows of Che’s life.
Whatever your opinion of Castro’s Cuba, and of Che Guevara, Soderbergh’s film certainly helps unravel the fact from the fiction. And there’s no doubt that Del Toro’s performance transforms Che from t-shirt icon to real-life hero; not just for his actions, but also for his unwavering, absolute belief in the power of mankind to do right by themselves. 5 stars
Part One has an interview with Steven Soderbergh, plus a behind the scenes featurette. Part Two includes interviews with Benicio Del Toro, composer Alberto Iglesias and Jon Lee Anderson, author of Che: A Revolutionary Life. 3 stars
Stars Benicio Del Toro, Franke Potente, Demian Bichir
Director Steven Soderbergh
Distributor Optimum Home Entertainment
Format DVD & Blu-ray
Released June 29
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