'Che': Cuba Libre? By Kurt Loder

Steven Soderbergh attempts to fill out the world's most famous T-shirt.

A four-and-a-half-hour movie in subtitled Spanish, you say? About a dubious and long-dead '60s revolutionary? I have to admit that such a picture might normally not vault to the top of my must-see list. But [movie id="240224"]"Che"[/movie] is a [movieperson id="99241"]Steven Soderbergh[/movieperson] film — two films, actually — so it's not entirely what you might expect. For one thing, Che Guevara, the man who helped Fidel Castro impose a 50-year-long (and counting) dictatorship on Cuba, is played by [movieperson id="16222"]Benicio Del Toro[/movieperson] — an actor who can say more with his dark brood than many actors can with a mouthful of dialogue. And as usual, Soderbergh not only directed the picture, but shot it, too (under his usual pseudonym), so there's very little sag and drift, and it looks great. I saw both films when they were screened together last month (separated by a half-hour intermission), and I was not bored.

Part One of "Che" shows us the Argentinian adventurer meeting Castro (played with a marvelous darting lightness by Mexican actor Demián Bichir) in Mexico City in 1955, and sailing to Cuba with him and a small group of fellow revolutionaries intent on toppling the corrupt and brutal (and U.S.-backed) Batista dictatorship. It also follows Guevara on some of his post-revolution foreign travels, when he was a sort of Marxist rockstar on the international world-leader/cocktail-party circuit. And we see him in New York delivering a fiery address at the United Nations, condemning a long series of American interventions in Latin America. (That's Del Toro up at the podium, but the footage is black-and-white, and it looks totally newsreel.)

Laying all of this out chronologically would have allowed for plenty of sag and drift, so Soderbergh hops back and forth through the years, and he keeps us hopping with him, with little complaint. There are some wonderful small moments. Just before a TV appearance, for example, Che is offered makeup for the cameras; he rejects this notion, but then, on his way to the door, turns and says, "Maybe a little powder."

Considering the length of this bipartite movie, a surprising amount of relevant information has been left out. Che's hatred of capitalism (ironic in a man who favored Rolex watches) and individualism generally pretty much guaranteed the messes he created in overseeing agrarian reform and the National Bank of Cuba. And there's only the most oblique reference to his tenure as commander of the notorious La Cabaña prison, where he presided over the "revolutionary justice" executions of hundreds, some have said thousands, of people — CIA stooges and traitors, in his view; children as young as 14, in the testimony of others. Also elided from the film is his failure to export Cuban-style insurrection to such other countries as the Congo, from which he departed in defeat with his beret between his legs.

Guevara's final failure — the subject of Part Two of "Che" — was his attempt to foment a communist revolution in Bolivia, where actual Bolivians looked upon him as a dodgy foreigner, and ultimately betrayed him to government troops and their CIA trainers. He was executed by Bolivian soldiers in October of 1967. He lives on, of course, as a T-shirt — the crowning capitalist irony — and as a symbol of romantic rebellion to many, many people, including all manner of wealthy musicians and actors: exactly the sort of capitalist lackeys who would find themselves either imprisoned or facing a firing squad under their hero's system of summary justice (along with many otherwise-blameless homosexuals of their acquaintance).

The most interesting thing about these two extraordinary films is how glancingly they deal with the troublesome (and now outmoded) political ideals of this supremely political man. The director has approached his subject as the complicated human being he was in life, not the overblown symbol he has become since his death. Del Toro plays him this way, too — we hear as much as we should about the odiousness of the Batista regime (although not of the Castro regime that followed it), and the low estate of the average Cuban under a military dictator who sucked up millions from American business interests and openly did deals with mainland Mafia kingpins. But what we take away from both pictures is the exhausting grind of the revolutionary life, and the restless disillusion that can settle in after the wars of liberation have been won. The movies don't begin to tell the whole story of Che Guevara — that's what books are for; but they do suggest substantial human truths about idealism, betrayal and despair. And that's not bad.

Don't miss Kurt Loder's review of "My Bloody Valentine 3-D" and "Paul Blart: Mall Cop," also new in theaters this week.

Check out everything we've got on "Che, Part 1: The Argentine" and "Che, Part 2: Guerilla."

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