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Courtesy of IFC Films

Che: Part One

Film portrays freedom fighter's life with dramatic allure but falls short of greatness

By Drew Halfnight

Che: Part One
Directed by Steven Soderbergh

Ernesto “Che” Guevara crammed a lot into his 39 years of life. He got a degree in medicine, married twice, sired six kids, toured the globe as a celebrity diplomat, fomented three armed insurrections and authored a best-selling memoir and a seminal book on guerrilla warfare.

Fortunately, Che: Part One covers only the late 1950s, when the 27-year-old Argentine-born Marxist joined Fidel Castro’s 26th of July Movement, trained for years with fellow guerrilleros in the Sierra Maestra mountains of Cuba and played a pivotal role in the overthrow of Cuba’s U.S.-backed president.

It’s a period with a great deal of dramatic allure — there’s a reason journalists fantasize about interviewing guerrilla fighters — and director Steven Soderbergh has done it some justice. In the men’s mud-caked beards and dishevelled vintage fatigues, there is a subtle, tactile evocation of history. At moments, we could almost forget we are watching a fictionalized account, so vivid the sensual greens of the Cuban jungle, so redolent the wet, rotting canvas of the tents, so natural and easy the manly banter around the encampment.

Demian Bichir manages an uncanny imitation of the real Fidel. Similarly, Benicio Del Toro (Che) and Santiago Cabrera (Camilo Cienfuegos) compare astonishingly well to photographs of their historical counterparts. Del Toro captivates as Che the noble warrior doubling as medic and combatant; Che the inveterate intellectual pausing during a march to read a poem; asthmatic Che wheezing between pulls on his avuncular pipe; and then, during flash-forwards interspersed throughout the film, Che the iconoclast addressing the United Nations in New York in 1964.

The score by Alberto Iglesias, with its spellbinding Santeria drum rhythms, goes some distance in setting the mood of brooding rage and indignation that fuels Guevara’s struggle against slavery and imperial rule.

Entertaining to be sure, the film falls short of greatness. It suffers the fate of most biopics, which tend to have that cropped and frozen feel of a studio portrait, as opposed to the richness and strangeness of a good novel. Del Toro’s Che is too likable. Where is the ruthless ideologue who killed defectors like dogs? Also glaringly missing from this film, apart from one scene in which a peasant complains of being paid a mere 100 dollars for four years of work, is a palpable sense of what these men are fighting for — something, perhaps, that no Hollywood director could be expected to grasp or show.

Author's photo
Drew Halfnight is a father, journalist and high school teacher in Toronto.
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