“Homeland or death”
You walk around college campuses and visit concerts or any other place young people may congregate and probably see someone in a t-shirt with some famous Latin American’s mug proudly displayed. Who is that guy and why is he so important? Director Steven Soderbergh has taken it upon himself to open the world’s eyes to the legend that is Ernesto “Che” Guevara, an Argentine revolutionary who helped bring freedom to the Cuban people under the leadership of Fidel Castro. It all sounds so wonderful, until you remember the Communist regime Castro instilled and the people who died at the hands of he and Guevara. Did they give the people freedom? Is this really a Cuba for the Cubans? I’m not informed enough on the state of that country’s politics, but what I can say from this film is that the people united under these men and no matter how many westerners picketed and protested Che’s visit to the UN in the mid-60s, this man is a larger than life figure and one deserving of a film. Does Soderbergh’s epic tale do the job? That is a tough question to answer. The Argentine, being part one in the two-part companion piece, definitely tries to show the definitive account of how Castro seized power from Batista. Che is there for the duration, leading the men and helping the peasants as they soldier on, letting us know a bit about that t-shirt’s origin, allowing us to either become more proud of the man whose likeness we wear or possibly realize that we shouldn’t have bought it in the first place.
Telling about the years from his fateful first encounter with the Castro brothers in Mexico to the end of the revolution, The Argentine helps show how a young doctor became a Comandante respected and loved by a nation that was not even his. This was a man with ideals, one who believed in the love of humanity, justice, and truth. He was a doctor above all else, patching up the troops and making sure the people in every village they passed through had the care and attention they needed. He also was not afraid to lead the charge and stand at the frontlines without fear of death. One must live as though they have already died, then the fear will be gone and you can do what is necessary for the cause. It is about the group and the country, not about his survival. In his idealized communist beliefs he was fighting for Cuba and the only outcomes allowed were victory or his own destruction.
Soderbergh’s ambitions are evident right from the start. Although it mainly concerns the years between 1955-1962, he splices in events happening later on as Che visits the UN. Shot in black and white to help juxtapose against the sumptuous colors of our main action, these future scenes comment on what is happening during the war, cutting in to enhance the tale. There is a lot of structural jumping between the years, each change titled with a date and place to orient us as the viewers. The technique lends a more modern artistic scope to what would otherwise be a linear narrative and I believe helps tell the story more coherently. He has edited the film for the most efficient portrayal of the facts, a somewhat cause and effect relationship to better let us understand the situation. And it is a beautifully shot film, lending a fly on the wall type feel as we follow the revolutionaries or watch the UN debate. It is less artifice than an account of what happened based on the memoirs of Guevara himself. All the battles and all the victories from start to finish, his own uphill advancement through the ranks, from doctor to right-hand man, instructor of new recruits to leader of an army. However, if this film is to be believed, Che never wanted the power past being able to get the job done. Once Cuba was free he wanted to bring the revolution to all of Latin America, to share his experiences and political viewpoints. An intelligent man, he is shown fighting for his beliefs, no matter the cost. Unafraid to do what was needed meant he was unafraid to kill. Does a man like that deserve to be glorified in a film like this? That is in the eye of the beholder because to some he was a hero and a patriot, but like every conflict in history, where there is a good side there is a bad. To view a battle objectively is impossible because there will always be someone to defend it and someone else to protest.
The Argentine is one that will make you think about the strength of the mind and the power of ideas. A country came together and helped back a revolt with force to take over the government. With the charismatic and understated performance from Benicio Del Toro as Che, one can’t help but see why. Always with a smile and a kind word, he ruled with respect and without compromising his beliefs. The fact that he leads intellectually makes the moments of outburst that much more effective. The role should garner a lot of praise as he embodies the man completely, shedding any preconceptions of the actor himself. Demotions and promotions don’t apply during his tenure in the army, he does what Castro needs him to do; he follows his leader and expects the same from those under him. He portrays this man as one to be listened to and taken seriously. Castro himself holds council and values his ideas, and one might say that if Fidel was the face of the revolt, the man pulling the strings, Che was the muscle, the force allowing it all to happen.
The rest of the cast is a who’s who of familiar Latin American actors, some in small roles and others more pronounced. If I were to single out any they would be Demián Bichir, Victor Rasuk, and Unax Ugalde. Bichir embodied Castro perfectly and again comes off as a man with purpose and reason. Without any real insight into the dictator he would become, Soderbergh allows the character to be shown as a leader looking out for the people. Ugalde might be my favorite role, playing “Little Cowboy”. Something about the performance just struck me as real and of the many solders shown onscreen, he stands out the most. Rasuk plays Rogelio, a young volunteer whose enthusiasm gets him confronted by Che often. It is he that forms the impetus behind a great scene at the end, driving a stolen luxury car to travel to Havana. It’s a moment that shows how, no matter if victory has been achieved, Guevara will not bend his ideals and politics.
In the end, though, while the visuals are gorgeous and the acting superb, it is the story that leaves a little something to be desired. Structurally interesting and easier to follow than one might think due to the jumps in time, we are not shown all the details. Often times we are thrown directly into the action without knowledge of why we are there or what is happening for what reason. Events occur and we are shown flashes, learning details after the fact or never at all. An example is when Che all of a sudden needs a cast for his arm. We don’t know what happened, another character actually asks him, but when the answer is about to be said, we cut to another scene. Soderbergh seems to have crafted the tale he wanted to, only allowing us to see what he deems important, while leaving all other details by the wayside. He paints Guevara in a kind light, as a warrior with a purpose, never putting himself in front of the mission or country. In that regard the film is about the Argentine, but on the whole it is really about the war itself. Why is Batista bad? Why is Castro good? None of that matters. This isn’t a history lesson showing the reasoning or rationale, you can get that in a book. Instead Soderbergh is just sharing the events themselves—as they happen, not why. You can’t deny the scale or ambitions on display, however, the lack of background may make it hard to decipher, or even hard to really care.
Che: Part One – The Argentine 7/10 | ★ ★ ★
courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival