Earnesto Goes to Bolivia
Starring: Benicio Del Toro, Franka Potente
By Robert Patrick
At the time of his death, Earnesto “Che” Guevara was not a student of popular western history. If the revolutionary had been, he would’ve known to never ride into Bolivia with guns blazing – Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid had tried this a good number of years earlier to no avail. Instead, Che found himself muscled in on by the Bolivian army, captured, popped several times in the torso, and left for dead. Soon, Guevera’s infamous face was propped up for posthumous photographs. Bolivian generals, prodding the corpse like a prized sea bass, lined up to show their catch. The death wasn’t a romanticized scene, though Che, many years later, would become a two-toned watermark of popular culture on t-shirts and posters.
Director Steven Soderbergh, in attempting to explore Che’s historical impact on Cuba, shot a four hour and twenty minute film about the enigmatic figure. The opus, shamelessly long and self-indulgent, plays like it had never seen a test audience or a film editor. If you had ever wondered what Che’s life would look like if in a mumble core movie, Soderbergh has produced it here. A generous portion of the movie revolves around Che walking through a jungle, snapping twigs with his boots, and listening to the faint cackle of gunfire in the far distance. While this is not unlike Guevara’s experiences, it makes for excruciating movie watching. From a scholarly standpoint, it is gratifying to watch Che hunch over, wheezing from acute pain in his chest, trying to struggle on. But what isn’t gratifying, from a filmgoers perspective, is to watch this scene repeat itself for twenty minutes.
Che is a strange film because it never truly justifies its own length. In fact, we never really understand who Che is by the end of the film. We see him trudge through mud and earth, and hear him bark commands at insubordinate followers, but have little insight into his passion. A substantially more interesting portrait of Guevara is the far superior Motorcycle Diaries, released years earlier, by director Walter Salles. In that film, there is a sense of a man at odds with himself, with the world, with morality. In Soderbergh’s interpretation of Che, we see little more than a visage of an important person, not the mechanics of one. After the movie was over, there was a larger sense of who Soderbergh is as a director, than who Che was as a person. Be that as it may, Benicio Del Toro, who plays the ill-fated Guevara, looks uncannily like the fallen Cuban hero. Much of the casting holds its weight rather well, save for a scene that shoehorns Lou Diamond Phillips into the movie for reasons unknown.
No matter how tearfully underdeveloped this film is, I still have a mild admiration for it. The task of recreating a revolutionary world, teetering on the brink of change, is an ambitious undertaking. The final thirty minutes of the film, coming too late to redeem a large majority of the picture, are phenomenally touching and deserve to be seen as such. Many may not agree with the fundamental politics of the movie – you know, Che being communist, for example – but the man was important to his people.
The most glaring problem with the film is its running length. And because it is so long, it shows to me that the cast and crew didn’t have a concise grasp on the subject material. Too many painstaking details could’ve been cropped from the final cut to produce more cognitive fluidity.
Che Guevera might always be a man of many faces, but Soderbergh’s film reveals none of them. You would do better to read a book about the man – it would be shorter and more comprehensive – go figure.