Monday, February 23, 2009

Film Review of 'Che': A-

Fernando Romero

Che, the two-part film portrait of Ernesto Guevara de la Serna, is a hauntingly beautiful effort to one of the 20th century’s most important figures. The film captures the passion, dedication, raw honesty and love for social change that burgeoned within Ernesto “Che” Guevara. With its lyrical beauty and strong performances, the film can be riveting. It is worth seeing for its attention to visual detail and ambitious filmmaking, making it if nothing else, one of the best films of the year.

Click here for trailer The Argentine
Click here for trailer Guerrilla

Nearly five hours long, including an intermission, Che, is a reconstruction of a pair of brutal insurgencies spearheaded by Guevara. Divided into two parts, dubbed “The Argentine,” and “Guerrilla,” Che, is an epic journey of the Argentinean physician-turned-revolutionary who became Fidel Castro’s right-hand man in the Cuban Revolution and then moved on to spread socialist insurgencies throughout the world.

Benicio Del Toro gives a strong performance worthy of an Oscar nomination as a veritable Che. Del Toro embodies Che with such semblance that it leaves the viewer thinking “that is exactly how Che must have been.” We see Che taming his asthmatic coughing fits or reading books between battles. Che is by turns scholar, guidance counselor, drill sergeant, and comandante, and Del Toro makes him a warrior-saint who learns, against his will, to cultivate a gruff bruiser facade. He yearns to be a “true revolutionary, the highest level of humanity,” and it’s no insult to the film to say that Del Toro succeeded in portraying Che.

The first part of the movie, “The Argentine,” details the brutal campaign of the armed guerrilla led by Castro. The movie makes flashbacks to Che and Castro’s first meeting at a safe house one night in Mexico City where the two spent that night perched on a balcony discussing imperialism and oppression in Latin America. There are also intercut scenes of a visit to New York Che made in 1964 to address the United Nations. Dressed in war fatigues creating a contrast to the suit-wearing, U.N. representatives, as if almost stating that even in New York, a town of glitz and glamour and lots of talk, Che remained a man of action and revolution. These particular shots are gorgeous in the grainy mock-antique black-and-white. The speech delivered at the U.N. stands as one of the most dramatic scenes as Che defends himself against a barrage of verbal accusations. “¿Fusilamientos? Si. Hemos fusilado. Fusilamos y seguiremos fusilando. Nuestra lucha es una lucha a muerte. Patria o muerte!” Intense.

The second half, “Guerrilla,” delves with Che’s attempt to start a socialist insurgency in Bolivia. The opening credits detail a map of Latin America in red, highlighted, the way Che must have seen Latin America, like a tinderbox waiting to be ignited. Here, we see Che as a quixotic-vagabond who left his adopted country and gave up everything anyone could ever want to fight on the side of justice. The drama that unfolds in the second half is deadly as Che becomes a symbol for an idealism that was too pure for his own world; an abstract of Marxism and how it only takes one person to change the world.

If anything, the downside is that the film relies too heavily on the diaries Che wrote during the insurgencies in Cuba and Bolivia. Anybody who goes to see Che expecting a handsome survey of his life will be surprised by what’s not there. Nothing about the budding of his radical beliefs which was rather too-lovingly captured in The Motorcycle Diaries, starring Gael García Bernal as an improbably gorgeous Che.

Albeit great acting and scenery, the film may come off as a mere panel of war, with Che and his comrades prepping for battle after battle. Che fights the bourgeoisie on the side of the proletariat, but as his nom de guerre changes from Ramon to Fernando there is little room for emotional attachment. My appetite was whetted to learn even more about Che, in particular how his humane ideals were tested, and compromised.

The film is an extraordinary effort though; for a man who packed a lot of life into 39 years, it was captured fittingly, but not enough for even a five-hour film. Paradoxically, Che is twice as long than it should have been, but only half the film it ended up being. A quote attributed to one of Latin America’s greatest writers is fitting for the film.

“I could write a thousand years and a million pages about Ernesto Che Guevara.” – Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

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