Thursday, May 14, 2009

Che: Part One

Che: Part One (Steven Soderbergh, 2008) (Oxford) Before heading to the theater to view Che: Part One, Steven Soderbergh's biopic of the omnipresent revolutionary, I figured that I should know more about him than the fact that he was instrumental in Castro's Cuban revolution and graces at least 500 gazillion t-shirts worldwide. I optimistically pulled up Wikipedia's entry on the bearded revolutionary, but quickly got distracted by something else (ie, my job) and decided that the film itself would have to serve as an education.

Because that is what the biopic usually is: we learn the story of a person's life - the actions and reactions that shaped their life story - and the core social and/or political beliefs/philosophies/ideas that drove them. Basically, we learn about the fight and why it is fought.

Half a Film and Half a Story
Except that in Che we really only get 50% of this package deal - and I don't think that other 50% will be offered up in part two! Intertwining the Cuban guerrillas' slow march through the dense and mountainous terrain to Havana with Che Guevara's later journey to New York to harangue the United Nations about the crimes of capitalist America, Che: Part One is a slow but nonetheless enjoyable history of the actions that comprise Che's involvement in the Cuban revolution. It rings of authenticity, and is beautiful to look at as a result.

However, it is the 50% that was missing that nags me. I appreciate greatly the sacrifices made to slowly crawl over densely forested mountains and wade through engorged streams while fighting a technologically and numerically super force, and I think that this is clearly and effectively captured by the film. What is not conveyed to the viewer is why Che or the guerrilla's undertook this daunting campaign.

There are certainly the odd references to the corrupt nature of the puppet government of Batista, the unfair advantage taken by corporations, and the lack of basic services delivered to the Cuban people - indeed, Che takes it upon himself to try to ensure that all of his fighters are literate. However, the film fails to capture - and in truth does not even try to convey - the political and social ideas/philosophies/beliefs that impelled the Cuban revolution and inspired Che.

And the latter is the most important - I do not, after all, want to be subjected to a piece of sociopolitical propaganda on the evils of the capitalist west and the virtues of the revolution. However, if the goal of a biopic is to increase the viewer's understanding of the subject - in this case Che - then I think that it is important that we be given some appreciation of what they believed in and why they were fighting.

Indeed, as the slow progress over mountains and through valleys progressed, I found myself wondering why these people were following Che. I could easily understand why they would believe in the revolution based on my preexisting hazy knowledge of the situation, but the portrait of Che that was presented was not inspiring or uplifting. He was a reticent intellectual at worst, and a stern schoolmaster at best - always having the best interests of his men at heart, but never showing any connection to them on a human level.

As a highly politicized figure in a film that could easily have generated great controversy, I can understand the filmmakers' insistence on strict adherence to the historical facts of the revolution. However, I can't help but feel cheated by their decision to complete ignore the spirit of the man and of the times - I don't feel like I know or understand Che the man any more than I did before entering the Oxford Theatre.

Where was the inspiration for the filmmakers, let alone the revolutionary? Maybe I should return to Wikipedia to try to learn more about what ideas and beliefs drove Che the man, about the wellspring of his passion.....

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