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Che

I saw the Che roadshow down at the Kendall Square Theater in Cambridge this last weekend. Quite the experience.

It started with a nice glossy program book, which I’ll have to take a picture of, since I can’t find any out there on the Web. As the very serious posters on the wall explained, it’s an old school roadshow, which means no opening or closing credits: those were in the program book. We collectively shuffled in, found seats, watched the lights dim, and saw a map of Cuba come up on the screen. For the next minute or so, various regions of Cuba were highlighted and named: sort of 50s geography filmstrip. And then the movie proper began.

A couple of hours later, the movie ended: that’d be The Argentine, which is the first of Soderbergh’s two movies about Che. It covers Fidel Castro’s Cuban revolution. After a fifteen minute intermission, we returned to the theater for the second movie, Guerrilla, which is about Che’s last year in Bolivia. This time, the map was of South America. Another two hours later, and that movie ended — no credits — and everyone left.

I found the roadshow presentation satisfying; I wanted to see the movies back to back like that, to compare them with fresh memories. I think that IFC’s attempt to invoke the epics of days gone by (Lawrence of Arabia, Gone With The Wind) was a mistake, because Che is not those at all. It’s not epic. Clinical, perhaps.

… although the comparison with T. E. Lawrence is perhaps interesting, isn’t it? Soderbergh’s noted that he spent a lot of time watching The Battle of Algiers while making Che. Perhaps the Arab connection isn’t so far fetched.

Either way, though, Che is not epic in the classical manner. The overall story of the man’s life is epic. These two movies give us a view of the man through two smallish portholes. From them alone, we’d know that Che had medical training only because he used it and some of his Cuban compatriots mentioned it. We would not know that he fought in Guatemala before coming to Cuba. We wouldn’t learn anything about his background. We just see the man and his actions.

The story lies in the contrast between the movies. In the first, matters go well from the revolutionary point of view. Castro and Guevara win! In the second, the revolution fails and, of course, Che dies. Soderbergh isn’t interested in explaining why. Draw your own conclusions.

I think there’s an unintended irony here. One reason Che failed in Bolivia was his inability to engage with conditions on the ground. His passion for change fueled a very intellectual revolution; he was convinced that his foco insurgency theory would lead to victory. He didn’t adapt when it didn’t work. Soderbergh has never been accused of being insufficiently intellectual, so Guerrilla in particular is a somewhat austere look at a man failing due to a similar intellectual approach.

Or perhaps that’s inevitable; Che may seem so intellectualized because of the filters of the man portraying him.

I’ve been grappling with my reaction for a couple of days now; wondering if the story revealed by the negative space between two movies is enough? Am I just too conditioned by biopic after biopic to expect spoonfed morals and conclusions? Guerrilla begins with a sequence that could have been horrendously blatantly painful: Che is leaving his family in Cuba.

Those words themselves have a story in them. His wife, Aleida, first appeared in The Argentine, at which point she’s a young guerrilla fighter who falls into Che’s orbit. He mentions, at one point, that he hasn’t seen his wife and child in Mexico for a long time. The two of them have chemistry, clearly, although it’s never stated.

That’s all the movie tells us about how Che left his first wife Hilda for Aledia: he was silently attracted to Aledia while married to Hilda, and by the time he left for Bolivia he’d married her and had several children with her. There’s no commentary.

Back to the scene at hand. Che is in disguise as Raoul, which is how he’ll enter Bolivia. That’s how he spends his last night with his family; Aledia tells the children that since their father is away, Raoul will take his seat at the table, and we see him with his head in her lap after dinner. We see nothing else; we are told nothing else.

If this movie was about Jerry Lee Lewis, we’d have swelling music and dramatic point of view shots, but that’s not this. I know I missed that on an instinctive level, as it’s what I’ve grown to expect from a biopic. I don’t think clear emotional messages are bad. On the other hand, I still don’t know if I think this was… good?

Small word to describe the question, that. It’s a brilliantly made movie. Soderbergh filmed most of it on the Red One, and did most of his own camera work. It’s stunning. The traditional shots of The Argentine contrast perfectly with the handheld jitter of Guerrilla. Del Toro is great. So yes, it’s a good movie.

Is it a satisfying movie? I walked out feeling half-empty. On the other hand, I’ve been thinking about it for days. I don’t know that I learned anything about Che from that four plus hours of cinema. For such an objective, non-judgmental movie, that feels strange — but maybe that’s part of the point. Any conclusions I come to are the result of my own analysis of the facts as presented.

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