Steven Soderbergh reteams with Traffic (2000) collaborator Benecio Del Toro in Che, a glorious four-hour depiction of Marxist revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara. The first half, called Che: Part 1 or The Argentine, covers Guevara’s involvement in the 1950s Cuban revolution, which resulted in the ousting of USA-linked President Fulgencio Batista and the start of Fidel Castro’s reign. The story is also intercut with black-and-white scenes of Guevara’s momentous trip to the United Nations around a decade later in 1964. Starting with Guevara’s first meeting with brothers Fidel (Demián Bichir) and Raúl Castro (Rodrigo Santoro) in Mexico, the film segues into the guerrilla warfare held in the jungles of Cuba, showing the growing power and support of Castro’s 26th of July Movement while also presenting Guevara as a doctor, fighter, leader, and hero.
Soderbergh acts as both director and cinematographer in Che (though he uses the pseudonym “Peter Andrews” for the latter role) capturing the insurgent action in the glowing, verdant jungles and steamy, earth-toned huts of Cuba and juxtaposing it with the high-contrast, black-and-white scenes in New York. In the titular role of this bold and breathtaking film is Del Toro, who researched the life of Che Guevara and the history of Latin America for years to co-produce what is clearly his passion project. With his immense talent and towering stature, Del Toro brings to life the intelligent, charismatic, idealistic, multifaceted icon with a powerful and inspiring performance. Small details like the way Guevara crooks his arm when checking his watch and scenes displaying his lifelong battle with asthma add to the character. The rest of the cast, which includes Bichir, Santoro, Julia Ormond, Santiago Cabrera, and Oscar Isaac, among many others, is in fine form, as well.
Although the film doesn’t focus too much on Guevara’s past or Argentinean heritage, it observes his many roles in the Cuban Revolution, from healer and warrior to leader and follower. As a staunch Marxist, Guevara never seemed to have had doubts, only disappointments, in his cause for justice, love of people, and fight against oppression. His unwavering drive may seem alienating to some but it is clear from the reaction of those around him that there were many who were inspired (I was certainly astounded by his focus and perseverance). Unfortunately, the political messages inherent in any movie focusing on a Socialist/Communist leader and icon such as Guevara, coupled with the unique presentation of Che as a two-part, Spanish language, subtitled film meant that the movie and its filmmakers did not get quite as much exposure or recognition as they deserved when Che was first released in America. However, even as a hidden gem, it is sure to spark an interest for viewers in the worthwhile and fascinating history of Che Guevara, Cuba (especially now that relations between USA and Cuba have improved), and Latin America as a whole.
Rating: 5 out of 5 Cuban cigars