Film Eye: Che

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 3 (May/Jun 2009), Reviews, Volume 17

1The most potent and enduring weapon in the armoury of any true revolutionary is the written word. From this, the spirit, memory and reputation of Ernesto de la Serna ‘Che’ Guevara (1928–67) live on. During a life committed to the fight against injustice and oppression—living in damp, humid forests, marching across rugged sierras in between chronic asthma attacks and military confrontations—Guevara still found time to write up the details of his guerrilla days. His various diaries, mapping his evolution from medical student into Marxist revolutionary, begin with his motorcycle trip across South America, recently adapted for the screen by the Brazilian director Walter Salles. The description of his later trials and tribulations in the victorious Cuban revolution and his campaigns training and leading insurrection in central Africa and Latin America provide a pre-eminent source in understanding the man, his motives and the trajectory of his life, which continues to inspire and provoke.

‘The true revolutionary’, he wrote in Socialism and man in Cuba (1965), ‘is guided by strong feelings of love. It is impossible to think of an authentic revolutionary without this quality . . . One must have a large dose of humanity, a large dose of a sense of justice and truth, to avoid falling into extremes, into cold intellectualism, into isolation from the masses. Every day we must struggle so that this love of living humanity is transformed into concrete facts, into acts that will serve as an example.’

The two feature-length films by the director Steven Soderbergh seek above all to explain this love for humanity and the solidarity and camaraderie that motivated Che (played by Benicio del Toro) to rove from one rebellious hotspot to another in pursuit of liberation. Che is honestly depicted as the empathetic ally of the Latin American peasant, the compassionate doctor performing medical miracles, the revolutionary teacher, the courageous strategist and the imaginative tactician. Most of the controversies concerning the less palatable sides of his life are ignored, notably the execution orders that bore his signature and the botched Congo episode. This is a salute to the hero and his cause: agrarian peasant insurgency and the people without history.
Che I adapts the narrative contained in his Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War from the moment Guevara first linked up with Fidel Castro in Mexico and departed on board the Granma, through the hard months in the Sierra Maestra, to the triumphal march into Havana. This technicolor narrative is inter-cut with grainy, documentary-like, black-and-white footage, which flashes forward to speeches delivered by Guevara before the United Nations. There he justified revolutionary action and defiantly condemned Yankee imperialism and the puppet-masters of right-wing Latin American governments. What emanates from the film is the tremendous courage of a man taking on a system hell-bent on his destruction and silencing.
Che II narrates his physical destruction, beginning with his disguised departure for Bolivia in 1966 to train a guerrilla foco (flying column) and ending with his unceremonious execution at the hands of the CIA-supported Bolivian army. The narrative is at times complicated and may lose an audience unfamiliar with the context and significance of a figure like Regis Debray, for example. But when considered in its entirety the film succeeds in liberating Guevara from the emptiness of his over-consumed image and retrieving an important chapter of world history.
Generations of angry western teenagers, attracted by the romantic image and cult of rebel ‘Che’, have sported his bearded and bereted face like a counter-culture brand name. He has become the revolutionary archetype, a signifier of resistance, and, just as Walter Benjamin observed, his history has decayed into images, not stories. Deeper comprehension of the man and his place in the endless struggle for human freedom and social justice is dominated by a counter-narrative ever reluctant to grant rebels either stature or voice.
On taking control of Cuba in 1959, Fidel Castro circulated widely his famous defence speech made at his trial for the attack on the Moncada barracks in 1953—La historia me absolvera (History will absolve me)—which served as a manifesto of the revolution. It was a defiant statement justifying revolutionary action in terms of the past. History and not constitutional democracy became the legitimating force of the uprising, and the heroic guerrillas and their stories were turned into the founding myths of the new Cuba (not so different from the treatment of the executed sixteen in the aftermath of the Easter Rising). The Cuban historian Louis A. Pérez has noted how history served ‘as the handmaiden of the revolution’.
From the outset socialist Cuba was self-conscious, and the creation of self-justifying propaganda was high on the agenda. Within months the new regime had established a Cuban Film Institute (ICAIC), which still produces films celebrating black insurrection and guerrilla warfare. ICAIC’s archive holds spools of uncut footage of the revolution, which has never been screened outside the country. Knowledge of the insurgency and the regime that followed remain subjugated to the conflicts of positive and negative propaganda defining popular and academic perceptions of the longest-surviving revolutionary experiment of the contemporary world.
Jean-Paul Sartre called Guevara ‘the most complete human being of our age’ and Soderbergh’s film captures elements of that completeness, depicting the integrity and courage of Guevara in a compelling way. No film of any duration, however, can illuminate the deeper philosophical humanity of the man: ‘the eclectic dissector of doctrines and psychoanalyst of dogmas’, as he said of himself. Guevara’s contribution to post-colonial thinking is yet to be written. Meanwhile, his real relevance transcends ideology, intellectualisation and reductionist biography in the medium of either film or text. In the hearts of young women enslaved by sweatshops along the Mexican border or among the landless peasants living for years under plastic in the Brazilian interior, his spirit ignites the collective hope that one day the tables of savage capitalism will be overthrown and the wretched of the earth will be left in peace. HI

Angus Mitchell lectures in history at the University of Limerick.

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