Soderbergh’s “Che”: A Review & Something More

Text: Julie Schwietert Collazo
Che photo: Brayan Collazo Alonso
40 Napoles photo: Francisco Collazo
Fifty years ago, Fidel Castro and his ragtag group of guerrillas rode into Havana triumphant after having provoked dictator Fulgencio Batista to abandon Cuba.

Central to the “triumph of the revolution,” as it’s called in Cuba, was Ernesto “Che” Guevara, a handsome, asthmatic Argentinean doctor. Though born into relative wealth, Che’s travels throughout Latin America while still a medical resident exposed him to the region’s inequalities, and the profound impact poverty had–and still has, of course–on people’s physical and psychological health, as well as their political systems.

Che, like Fidel, is a controversial figure, revered by some as a revolutionary hero and reviled by others as an assassin. Yet more than 40 years after his death in rural Bolivia, where he was leading another revolution, Che remains a compelling character. His image has been preserved on t-shirts, he’s been the subject of numerous photographic exhibits, and, most recently, has continued to serve as a muse for film projects, including “The Motorcycle Diaries” and the eponymous epic film, “Che.”

Yesterday, we spent the afternoon watching the four hour+ long “Che,” directed by Steven Soderbergh. Though the film was scorned by scores of critics when it previewed at the Cannes Film Festival last year, we came away satisfied. Yes, the film is long and drawn out. (The sometimes uncomfortably long shots help give the viewer a sense of the discomfort, fear, and anxiety felt by the guerrillas). Yes, it’s intricate, detailed, with lots of characters who are likely to be hard to follow for those viewers who don’t know much about the revolution. But, admirably, the film veers away from glorifying either side in the decades old debate about Che. And for the astute, open-minded viewer who isn’t familiar with Latin American history and Cuban history in particular, the film makes it possible to begin to understand why revolutions occur and even why they’re needed sometimes.

The movie opens in Mexico City, where Che and Fidel meet for the first time. Che lived there, in an apartment just around the corner from where we live, at 40 Napoles Street. Francisco and I went there last year, looking for history.

Today, there’s a restaurant in the storefront on the street level of the building. “No, I didn’t know El Che lived here,” one woman said, looking at us with a mixture of awe and surprise. “I heard something about that,” another woman said with a sense of uncertainty and indifference, “but no, I don’t know anyone who knew him.” We talked with a man who came out of the building, clearly tired of asking questions just because he lives in a modest building where a famous man once lived. “No se nada,” he said, walking away quickly. The Che trail ran cold quickly, as we decided against trespassing into the building.

It’s little wonder there’s not even a commemorative plaque on the building. Mexico’s relationship with Cuba, once strong, has become more strained in recent years, particuarly as more undocumented Cubans make their way onto the shores of the country’s east coast, and in so many ways, Mexico is attenuating its Cuban ties. Still, for those in the know, regardless of their political persuasions, it’s interesting to think that the revolution all started here….