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Friday, Jan. 16, 2009
Che Guevara revived for a movie revolution
Director Steven Soderbergh visits key moments in the life of a subversive legend
Special to The Japan Times
As the Cuban revolution celebrates its 50th anniversary, it's hard to recall the enmity that led the United States to threaten and embargo its small neighbor for all these decades. Oh, right, Cuba is a communist regime, so we can't trade with them, just like, uh, China?
U.S. foreign policy may be dubious, but there's no doubt surrounding the continued potency of Cuba's most famous revolutionary, Ernesto "Che" Guevara. An Argentine doctor-turned-rebel who helped Fidel Castro overthrow Cuba's dictatorship, Guevara was eventually executed while trying to export the revolution to Bolivia in 1967. Guevara lives on, though, as a totemistic martyr figure for the secular left; anti-Yanqui, anti-imperialist hero to Latin America's new left (including, ironically, Bolivia's current president); and a Pop Art phenomenon whose face — in that iconic photo by Alberto "Korda" Gutierrez — has graced a zillion T-shirts, coffee mugs and even bikinis.
For such a ubiquitous figure, Che has rarely been covered by cinema: A horrendously inept 1969 film with Omar Sharif in the lead ("Che") bombed at the box office and touched off a drought that continued until Brazilian director Walter Salles released "The Motorcycle Diaries" in 2004, which looked at Guevara's experiences as a young man on a motorcycle trip across Latin America.
Director Steven Soderbergh had been asked to helm a movie on Guevara as far back as 2000, though, when his Oscar winning star in "Traffic," Benicio del Toro, floated the idea. At one point the American director handed the project to Terence Malick, who went off to film "The New World" instead just as funding finally came together for the Guevara project; so it wound up back in Soderbergh's hands.
When del Toro asked the 45-year-old director, "I said 'yes,' but I really wasn't sure what I was saying 'yes' to," says Soderbergh in an interview with The Japan Times about how he first took on the project.
What he agreed to turned out to be "Che," an epic four-and-a-half-hour film, split into two parts for general release, that look at two stages in Guevara's life. Part 1, "The Argentine," is set in 1955, when Guevara was 28 and leading a column of insurgents to victory in Cuba; Part 2, "Guerrilla," is set in 1965, near the end of Guevara's life, when the CIA and Bolivian Special Forces hunted him down like a dog in Bolivia.
Soderbergh describes how "a lot of people have talked about making a Che film, and I got halfway through developing this when I realized: This is why nobody has made a movie about this guy, because it's really difficult to know what to tell. So it was our choice to tell a little bit in a lot of detail, rather than a lot of it in a little detail. That's one of those traps I think biopics tend to fall into — they try and tell too much story."
In fact, Soderbergh's "Che" is nothing if not an "antibiopic." Soderbergh describes his approach by relating how he told his screenwriter: " 'Give me the scene before and the scene after the one that's normally in the movie.' I was being a little facetious, but not entirely."
Thus, there's no flashback to Guevara's childhood to find some trauma that "explains" his life. There's no grueling emotional turmoil when, still married, he falls for another revolutionary. What we do get is Guevara the guerrilla commander in the field with his men, and how he reacts to both setbacks and success.
Soderbergh employs a slightly detached, observational style (with very few closeups) that has sharply divided critics, and the director still seems a bit defensive.
"I was just trying to avoid, you know . . . the kind of manufactured emotions that some people feel you have to have in order to engage an audience," he says. "There are a lot of people who've been quite blunt about how cold they think the films are. All I can say is, from all the stuff I've read, and all the people I've talked to, that's what he was like. He was not an embraceable guy. You can't find anybody who knew him who would use the word 'warm' to describe him. He was very strict, very uncompromising."
In a word, driven. And that's how del Toro plays him in the film — but not without nuance. The critics who decry the lack of Guevara's inner life fail to see what is on the screen: the transformation of a man from eager but inexperienced idealist to hardened, committed commander. The film shows, in great detail, a man constructing a persona, simply out of necessity. Del Toro is acting as Guevara, but it's clear Guevara himself was an actor, one who needed to inspire, to persuade and to threaten. "Che" is nothing if not a portrait of the sheer force of will necessary to bring about a revolution.
I ask whether the director felt any sympathy for that position. While quick to point out that his is not a life-or-death situation, Soderbergh does say that on a film such as "Che," which was shot on a tight budget and tough schedule in remote locations, that "everyone is looking to me for guidance and assuming I have some sort of vision for (the film) and that it's my energy driving the film. Regardless of what I may feel at any given moment, I cannot ever give the impression of not knowing what I want, or where we're going, or any sort of doubt and anxiety.
"I remember going back to the hotel one night with Benicio, and we were both tired. Proportionally, he was acting more hours per day than anything he's ever done: There wasn't a lot of waiting around; we were shooting all the time. And he was like, "I'm really exhausted, acting for four or five hours a day." And I said, 'Dude, try 12!' I'm acting from the minute I get in the car in the morning till the minute I get back to the hotel. I'm acting like this is all going fine, and I'm happy, and we're gonna get through this, when, in fact, I'm freaking out. That's acting!"
Soderbergh says the quality he admires most in Guevara is his mental stamina. It is shown in sharp focus in Part 2, where Guevara is trapped in the hills in Bolivia, with a dwindling band of guerrillas, no radio link to Cuban operatives, out of supplies and medicine for his chronic asthma, and told by the head of the Communist Party of Bolivia that it does not support him.
"I think anyone rational would have just given up there," says Soderbergh. "But there was a great quote from a guy who fought with Che in the Congo, Victor Dreke, and he said, 'Che would rather face a bullet than reality.' That really stuck in my head."
The film's portrayal of Guevara is complex — it shows him tenderly administering medical care to poor villagers who'd never seen a doctor in their lives, heroically exposing himself to fire, and also coolly ordering the execution of deserters.
And yet the film has drawn fire from anti-Castro Cubans living in the U.S., who think of Guevara as the devil (for having executed supporters of the Batista dictatorship after the communists came to power).
Soderbergh discounts the criticism, asking, "Is the portrayal of Che within the film consistent with someone who would supervise those kind of events at La Cabana (the Havana prison where the executions took place)? My answer is, 'Yeah, he looks like a guy who could do that.' Look at his affect in that scene (where the deserters are executed) — does he seem torn up, or sorry? He almost looks bored, frankly, that he even has to deal with it. But if you're coming at the film from a certain angle, you'll just ignore this."
I suggest that the "liberal Hollywood" rhetoric thrown around so loosely in the United States leaves many viewers convinced that anyone who makes a film about Guevara must be trying to lionize him. Laughing, Soderbergh retorts, "How much like Che can I be, sleeping in the biggest suite in the Ritz Carlton hotel in Tokyo? The movie's about his dream, not mine. Whether I agree with aspects of it or not is irrelevant."
As with many of his films, Soderbergh also shot and edited "Che," and the director is quite enthusiastic about the new digital RED camera, which, at under 5 kg, is incredibly mobile and similar in quality to 35-mm film.
When asked why he always uses a pseudonym in the credits for his cinematography work, he replies: "I just feel like your name should appear once. 'Directed by' is the best credit in the world, and every time your name appears again, it dilutes that."
His camera and editing pseudonyms, Peter Andrews and Marianne Bernard, refer to his father's first two names and mother's maiden name, respectively.
"It makes me feel better to see that than it would to see my own name," says Soderbergh.
It's an unusual but somehow appropriately self-effacing admission from Hollywood's most idiosyncratic auteur, one who has pushed the boundaries even further with "Che."
"Che" Part 1 is now showing; Part 2 opens on Jan. 30.