Tuesday, July 21, 2009

A Diarist's Death

Benicio del Toro abandoning "Medellín" was perhaps the best career move he's ever made, allowing Vincent Chase and director Billy Walsh to drive Pablo Escobar's story right down the toilet. Del Toro had the keen sense to instead hook up with Steven Soderbergh to make "Che," a two-part guerrilla saga that I recently watched and immensely enjoyed.

Like Walsh's "Medellín," Soderbergh's "Che" is almost entirely in Spanish, lending it added texture. Unlike Walsh, however, Soderbergh knows how to frame a shot, pace a scene, create tension without a booming soundtrack or even dramatic dialogue. There are stretches in "Che" when you feel lost in the jungle, primarily in Part 2, where oblivion steadily hovers before closing in with a crash. Soderbergh's visuals are at times as lush and intricate as Terrence Malick's better work, minus the glacial drift.

But cinematography aside, what struck me most about "Che" is just how fucking amazing the Cuban revolution truly was. It's relatively easy and certainly profitable here in El Norte to bash Castro, Che, and the revolution. Such are the perks of our imperial culture. Yet when you seriously ponder it, free of ideology, Cuba slipping from Uncle Sam's grip seems a work of fiction, especially at a time when US power was at its zenith. This little island, led by a bedraggled yet highly coordinated cadre, kicked out Cuban puppets, the Mob, and American military interests, save for Guantanamo Bay. They began remaking Cuban society while enduring and repelling continual terrorist attacks. Is it any wonder why the US political mainstream despise what Cuba accomplished?

Of course, Cuba's impertinence led to a vicious counterattack in the Americas, as US-trained death squads sought to eliminate further peasant resistance to the prevailing regional order. This is dramatized in the second half of "Che," where the Bolivian military receive the latest counterinsurgency tactics then being honed by US forces in Vietnam. Add to that the indifference or opposition to Guevara's crusade by Bolivia's campesinos, and it was only a matter of time before that rebellion was smashed. Che's final hours as a prisoner, his body depleted but his faith in revolution unshaken, are anti-climactic. One of Che's captors sneers at his emaciated appearance, telling Che that he should have stayed in Cuba, where Fidel was doubtless enjoying a fine meal and good cigar at that very moment.

Soderbergh and Del Toro show that wasn't in the cards for Ernesto Guevara. His attempt to pull off a second political miracle in the Americas was essentially a suicide mission. He may have misread the Bolivian situation, or was simply foolhardy and reckless, but you can't say that Che lacked guts. That his iconic image still inspires bipartisan American hatred tells you something about his enduring heat. They can't put a bullet through that.