Interpreting revolution: Che: Part I and Part II
by Victor Wallis
Seeing Che (parts one and two, dir. Steven Soderbergh, 2008) and then reading about it prompts reflections on the larger political project that inspired its protagonist. One wonders to what extent the scope and thrust of that project – socialist revolution in Cuba and beyond – can be conveyed to audiences of a new generation through a focus on that particular individual.
Not surprisingly, the reviews of Che are politically predictable. Commentators who parrot the dismissive labeling of Cuba’s revolutionary regime as a totalitarian dictatorship are scornful of the film – their hostility only magnified by its length. They cannot get beyond noting – not mentioned in the film – that Guevara ordered executions of Batista henchmen in the aftermath of the 1959 victory. Any notion of situating those decisions in relation to the prior regime’s conduct – and the intense mass repudiation it aroused – would no doubt be viewed by them as mere apologetics. They reject the revolution on principle (just as U.S. officialdom after 1979 denounced the Nicaraguan revolution even though it abolished the death penalty), and no film that gives a respectful treatment to one of its leaders can be expected to change their minds.
What gives Che Guevara an appeal that eludes such gatekeepers is his unique trajectory from the perils of guerrilla warfare to a position of power and renown, and then back again to clandestinity, danger, and eventual capture and assassination. The two phases of this trajectory – shown in Parts I and II of the present film – are inseparable in defining who Che was. Revolutionary leaders in power, no matter how faithful to the ideals that inspired them, are always vulnerable to the charge that they value their position of authority more than they do their original commitment to social justice. Che’s withdrawal from state functions was the most conclusive proof that no such accusation could be leveled at him. It was at the same time a tribute to the larger vision that enabled him to think that way.
Che’s legacy thus beams an aura of integrity that reaches beyond those who share his politics or who know much about his life. However much his iconic status may have been degraded by commodification (the ubiquitous T-shirts), the aura underlying it is one that will continue to perturb defenders of privilege. Among the messages it conveys is that no amount of economic, political, or military might can withstand the moral force of a mobilized population. Corollary to this, and implicit in Che’s practical optimism, is the idea that while corrupt regimes have much to hide, their revolutionary challengers thrive on bringing every dilemma and every social antagonism to the surface.
The task, therefore, for anyone wanting to build on Che’s example – a goal embraced by this film’s producers– is not to feed into a legend of heroism but rather to develop an awareness of both the objective hurdles and the positive human qualities that are involved in dismantling structures of oppression. This is a tall order, certainly a challenge to any attempt at reenactment. As predictable as the hostility to Che shown by commercial taste-makers are the reservations, qualifications, and overall ambivalence expressed about the film by so many of those who on political grounds might have been expected to welcome it.
Much of such criticism emanates from a misplaced literal-mindedness. One reviewer, for instance, laments the fact that the film’s Fidel (Demián Bichir), although a skilled actor, lacks Castro’s physical stature and charisma. Such details do not seem to bother those who care about the film’s basic subject-matter, which does not end with the personal traits of even its main protagonist. In a post-screening appearance in Cambridge, Mass., producer and lead actor Benicio del Toro was asked about the film’s reception in Cuba. Remarking on the Cubans’ positive response, he told of an Afro-Cuban veteran of the revolution present at the Havana screening who was portrayed in the film by an actor with blond hair and blue eyes. Asked whether this bothered him, the veteran replied that it was of no importance in terms of the film’s authenticity.
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