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CheSearching for the man behind the myth

Review by Peter Arkell

It is a bold undertaking, making a film about Ernesto “Che” Guevara because of all the myths that surround his life and death. Che Part 1, succeeds because it focuses on a particular aspect of the story telling it faithfully rather than trying to tell it all.

Steven Soderbergh’s film eschews not only Hollywood money, but also the Hollywood tradition of making biopics about famous historical characters. There are no exaggerated phoney emotional episodes to try to pull the audience off-course.  Perhaps the film is a bit too dry in this respect, as it is difficult to get a handle on Che Guevara, the man. We are shown little of the man himself except in action – but that is the director’s intention and the method: he allows his character little scope for sentimentality and false interpretation. 

The film is meticulously researched, and there is nothing in it that did not happen – including the incident when Che’s rifle jams, and incredibly, a moment later when he is about to get shot himself, so does the gun of the government soldier. It  is a genuine and very unusual attempt to portray the essential hero without embellishment or exaggeration.

Che follows the story of the 82-man guerrilla force that set foot in Cuba in 1956 after a historic voyage from Mexico in a leaky boat. Che was at first the medic (he trained in Buenos Aires as a doctor), but he became more and more indispensible to Fidel and Raul Castro, the leaders of the expedition, as commandante and  courageous military hero.

This is an enthralling film as we follow the guerrillas in their early skirmishes with the corrupt dictator Fulgencio Batista’s government forces, their hit-and-run tactics (not always successful), and their lives inside the camps hidden in the dense vegetation of the Sierra Maestra, the  mountainous area in the east of Cuba, hundreds of miles from Havana.

Interspersed with all this are newsreel-style episodes, shot in black and white, dating from a later period, when Che became a diplomat defending Cuba’s socialism at the United Nations Assembly and in private meetings, denouncing the actions of the USA and the puppet South American regimes that support it.  It is these speeches, contrasting as they do in every way with the brilliance of the military action in the mountains, that supply the reasons, the justification and the ideology for the battles against the American-backed dictator Batista.

Che himself, played by striking look-alike Benicio Del Toro, is at the heart of the action, laying down the principles under which the force operates, insisting that the band always take their wounded with them, discussing with Castro, reading books, training new recruits, establishing discipline in the force, dealing with the local people and dispensing revolutionary justice to informers and those who betray the principles of the future revolution.

We see him grow in stature and confidence as the guerrilla force, nearly annihilated at one point, stabilises itself, grows, starts to win battles and, most importantly, the minds of the peasants and local people. By the time of the decisive battle at Santa Clara, two years after the landings, Che comes across as not only fearless but in command.

The final sequence shows Che on the road to Havana, ordering a couple of his fighters riding a swanky American limousine back to Santa Clara – the revolution does not encourage the stealing of other people’s cars. 

One can only await Part  II, due in February, which deals with his campaign in Bolivia and his death with much anticipation.

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