Forty-two years ago, a drunken Bolivian Army sergeant Mario Teran in a schoolroom in the little village of La Higuera fired the shots that killed Ernesto Che Guevara, destined to become one of the left wing’s icons of the 20th century. Others less clemently inclined prefer to view him as a murderous thug. Director Steven Soderbergh prefers the heroic — even saintly — approach.
Currently playing in American theatres is a four-hour homage to the late Major Guevara in subtitled Spanish titled simply Che. The Cannes Film festival last May honored it by awarding its Best Actor award to Benicio Del Toro, who played the eponymous hero.
Despite its many technical virtues — acting, photography, editing and such — I found this film excruciatingly boring. Heaven knows I have surely seen more than my share of films in a fairly long life — writing about films, involved in the making thereof — in this country as well as many European lands, and I have certainly seen my share of boring pictures, including some that I simply got up and walked out of (not that many, to be honest). One does want to be fair, after all.
But the second half of Che, titled “Bolivia” and covering the last ten months of the hero’s life in lugubriously grim detail, is unrelieved tedium. Perhaps it seems so because I read the late Guevara’s Bolivian diary when it was first published in 1968, and, yes, it was pretty repetitious, recounting day after day the hunger, the quest for food, the hostility of the peasants, the difficulty in recruiting any Bolivians for his mission, constant struggles with his wracking asthma.
Still, it’s been forty-one years since I read those words, and I’m afraid director Steven Soderbergh regrettably made them come all too alive, if I can use such a word to describe the feeling evoked by them.
If the first half of the Guevara saga titled “The Argentine” doesn’t induce sleep or ennui in you, but rather you find it “utterly riveting” as Hank Sartin of Time Out Chicago found it, one may well be irritated by the way Soderbergh and his scriptwriters Peter Buchman and Benjamin A. Van Der Veen have made the revolutionary a saint: a Jesus in fatigues. He cares for the sick and ailing (he is a doctor after all), he wants everyone to learn how to read and write and finds time to teach a few himself — a total saint, in short.
Che preaches the revolution like the Gospel. Those discussions that he and Raul Castro used to have about communism, if we can believe the many reports dating from those days, never make it into the film. In fact, politics rarely make their way into “Che” at all except for remarks about the evils of the United States as an imperialist and capitalist power that only seeks to impose its will on Latin America.
At a recent sold-out special screening at the Landmark movie house in Washington, D.C., the producer, Laura Bickford, along with co-producer and star Benicia del Toro, replied to a question as to why they had not chosen to cover Che’s Congo adventure on the film as well. The young woman replied that it had largely been a question of money.
She probably did not want to go into any detail about that Congo venture with good reason. The Congo was as much a dismal failure as that of Bolivia, even if Guevara did escape with his life. His diary published by Grove Press in 2002 not only matches the Bolivian diary in its recounting of daily wretched organization and physical discomfort, but reveals a most unattractive side of Guevara the man when it comes to his evaluation of the native Congolese. Talk of racism!
Back in the early 70s, when I was European acquisitions editor for Ballantine Books, I tried my hardest to get my hands on that diary, getting together with Regis Debray (shown briefly in the film, although the film neglects to say he served four years in a Bolivian prison before President De Gaulle finally got him released). Debray, who then was still on good terms with Fidel Castro, told me the diaries would make for fascinating reading, but, “The Cubans will never let the diaries out. They will keep them in their archives forever.” Why Fidel Castro after so long a time decided to release the Congo diaries on the world remains a mystery, unless possibly he was getting resentful that Guevara’s fame was outshining his own in the light of history.
For what it’s worth, Debray over the decades broke completely with Castro, wrote a serious best-selling biography of De Gaulle and a few years later another best-seller on, of all things, God, titled God: An Itinerary.
A small detail to leave you with along with the advice to never set foot in a theatre playing Che nor catch it on video-on-demand: in going through my Guevara files prior to seeing the film, I came across this picquant detail about the icon’s mother, Ceila. As an adult, she was a fanatic leftist and boasted of being an atheist, but as a teenager, she had been equally fanatic, but a fanatic of a different order — she had been devoutly Catholic to the point of wanting to become a nun. Mother and son had a very close relationship.
Should you be seriously interested in the life and thinking of Ernesto Che Guevara, let me counsel you to pick up a book now in its fourth edition: Politics and Social Change in Latin America. And read one essay in particular, genuinely rewarding. The title tells it all: “From El Cid to El Che: The Hero and the Mystique of Liberation in Latin America.”
The author is Dolores Moyano Martin, who grew up down the street in Cordoba, Argentina from the Guevara family. Interestingly, her sister worked at the United Nations and saw Guevara when he came there, as is shown in the early part of the first film. When she greeted him, he said to her, “”I’m no longer the person you used to know,” which perhaps tells us a bit about the man who had become Che.