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While I've never been a big fan of folks who wear their politics on their dorm room wall, I can see the appeal of Argentine revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara. God, just look at the guy. In that most famous photograph — the snap that became the poster that helped 10 million socially awkward, black-turtleneck-wearing college kids hook up — Che looks like a face chipped into a mountainside, a cross between Thomas Jefferson and a Latino Jesus. He doesn't have to say a word. All he has to do is give the capitalist pigs that million-yard stare and they wither before him.
A figure that looms so large as a symbol is always a minefield for an artist seeking to capture his essence. Here's the truth of films about historical figures: What looks good carved in granite rarely looks good on film. The latest attempt at capturing Guevara's soul is director Steven Soderbergh's “Che: Part I,” playing now at Market Street Cinema. At times beautiful, aloof, riveting and dull, it's a film that bears watching, if only because it is one more brick in the wall of Che. Even if the realization we come to in the end is that a man so thoroughly made a saint can't possibly be understood, it needs to be seen.
The film picks up the story of Guevara (played here well by Benicio Del Toro) during the late 1950s, when Che came to Cuba from his native Argentina to fight with Fidel Castro against the U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista. Periodically, the film toggles from steamy jungle battlefields to an older Che in Manhattan, during his 1964 trip to address the United Nations. Often fighting his asthma as hard as the enemy, Che proves himself to be a great military mind, leading ragtag columns of farmers and young idealists — most of them armed in the beginning with not much more than their family hunting rifles. The parallels to the band of rebels who founded America are hard to miss. Soderbergh is mindful of this, I think, often lingering on the bodies of dead freedom fighters with their rifles still clutched in their hands. Part one of a two-parter, the film follows Guevara through the fall of Batista.
The problem with “Che: Part I” is that it soon becomes clear that Soderbergh was one of those kids who had a Guevara poster hanging on his wall, and that he's still a little hypnotized by that laser beam stare. Though we see Guevara fighting, interacting with Castro and his men, teaching peasants to read, and confronting the U.S.-backed puppets of the Latin world during his speech at the U.N., we never really get to see the real man and why he's willing to die for what he believes. Yes, we hear vague platitudes about Revolution, but no man REALLY goes to war for an idea, does he? What we never get from “Che: Part I” is that divine spark of love — that moment when Che Guevara, a young Argentine medical student with a bright future ahead of him, decided that trying to free the impoverished peoples of Latin America was worth everything: his career, his family, even his life. (If you're looking for a film that shows much more in this regard, check out the lovely 2004 flick “The Motorcycle Diaries,” which chronicles the thousand-mile trip Guevara made across South America as a young med student on his way to work at a leper colony). Given that Che looms so large in the imagination, a little glimpse of the forces — internal and external — that turned the boy into a man and the man toward conflict would have gone a long way. Whatever made Che Guevara into a freedom fighter, you can bet he didn't read it in a book.
The main failing of “Che: Part I” is that Soderbergh starts his film exactly too late, after the Jell-o that is Che's moral indignation and personal determination has set with all the fruit inside. The result is a character we can never quite get close to and never quite understand; a man as distant as a poster on a wall.