Monday, May 4, 2009

che guevara: the face that launched 1,000 t-shirts

the new che movies are out, and i caught part one last week for my culture corner column. it'll run here from wednesday, but i've pasted it in below.

i knew him as the face in that t-shirt but really became interested in him when i went to cuba. in part it was because he is such a fascinating man, and in part because the only english books available in cuba were harry potter and political writings. uninterested in the boy wizard, i worked through reminiscences of the cuban revolutionary war and the bolivian diary - they form part one and two of steven sodenbergh's che movies.

to my pleased surprised, both are good reads - a little boys' own adventure mixed with the thoughts of the doctor-turned-revolutionary. the movie is great, too, though perhaps biased toward che (it skips the criticisms of him that his thirst for revolutionary justice led to bloodbaths and that he was nastily homophobic) . it'll learn you about cuba, and make you think about life here in the 'free' world. it's a rarity among western movies in that guevara's personal life and motivations are scarcely mentioned. he's fighting for his ideals, not to battle inner demons.

fun note: ernesto guevara was an argentine and so spoke spanish, as did the cuban revolutionaries. as an argentine, he was forever calling guys 'che', which means 'man', as in, chill out, che. it was so distinctively him that it became his nickname - and if you listen to the spanish in the che movies, you'll hear him calling everybody 'che.'

here's my review:

In that one iconic image, Ernesto Guevara is the most famous man in the world. Sporting a beret and staring nobly off into the distance, the Cuban revolutionary adorns T-shirts and posters as shorthand for rebellion. In any other photograph, few people would have a clue who he is.
Steven Sodenbergh’s epic, two-part pic Che takes a deeper look at the legendary guerrilla fighter. Part one, based on Guevara’s own account of the Cuban revolution, follows the fighters from plotting in Mexico City to impending triumph on the outskirts of Havana after the U.S.-backed dictator Batista flees. Along the way, we get black-and-white glimpses of the near future, with Guevara arriving in New York to speak to the UN.
Guevara is fleshed out as an extraordinary man, grown up from the idealistic doctor we followed around South America in The Motorcycle Diaries. The long, hard fight through the jungles of the Sierra Maestra are shot in gripping, documentary-style realism and Sodenbergh resists the easy movie of Che as action hero. In this movie, the bad guys don’t always miss and the good guys aren’t always right.
Part two promises to be a heart-breaker. After the revolution’s victory, Guevara became a powerful government minister, but his heart isn’t in it. He soon disappears, emerging for a futile drive for revolution in Congo before sneaking into Bolivia to free its people from imperial domination. It ends with the dark side of the iconic Che image: the body of Guevara, hunted down and murdered by the CIA, displayed like a hunting trophy.
Benico Del Toro has gotten lots of deserved praise for his mesmerizing portrayal of Guevara, and Demain Bichir and Rodrigo Santoro are spot-on as Fidel and Raul Castro. The two Che movies reclaim the man from T-shirts but will leave you wanting more. The films portray him in a saintly light, letting in none of the darker claims about his thirst for revolutionary justice and barely touching on his personal life.
The Che movies are an often disturbing challenge to the lazy claims of freedom Westerners make for ourselves. Guevara speaks against the “invisible prisons” of capitalism and the lie of the self-made man. He goes on to observe (not in the movie) of the story of Rockefeller as the triumphant self-made man: “The amount of poverty and suffering required for a Rockefeller to emerge, and the amount of depravity entailed in the accumulation of a fortune of such magnitude, are left out of the picture.”
The same could be said about another man approaching Che-like iconography: Barack Obama. The triumph of his story is only possible because of centuries of brutal racism. It would have been better to live in a society where Obama was not needed; that’s the world Guevara died for.


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