Note: the author is a Latin American historian with a specialty in the ‘60s revolutionary movements that spread throughout the continent largely as a consequence of Che Guevara. This is a deeply personal topic for a writer who has dedicated his adult life to the study of Che and his social, cultural and historical milieu.

Che Guevara was murdered in the Bolivian village of La Higuera on 9 October 1967, but, as the Latin American revolutionaries would have it, he did not die. It is not possible to terminate an idea with bullets, thus it’s impossible to execute “el che.” Poets and radicals, the teenage boys who pulled up paving stones in the streets of Nicaraguan towns in 1978 to throw Molotov cocktails at the dictator’s tanks and the Zapatistas who in 1994 seceded from the Mexican state agree: Che is immortal. As poet Ernesto Cardenal put it, Che was the evolutionary first fish who died showing all the other fish that it was possible to evolve and live on land, and so lives forever in the very terrestrial-ness of his followers.

Steven Soderbergh captures this in the final seconds of his 269-minute long epic Che. After staging a re-enactment of Guevara’s execution and his surreal postmortem helicopter flight out of La Higuera, the film cuts to a flashback of a wave crashing against the Granma—the yacht Fidel Castro used to sail from Mexico to the Sierra Maestra to begin the Cuban Revolution. An again-youthful Che occupies the frame, pensive, serious and seething, as always.

Che was famous for intensity, discipline and a raging sense of self-actualization, and Benicio Del Toro unrelentingly captures this. He glances to his left, toward the bow of the ship, where he sees Fidel, and peers out over the water, a knowing calm spreading over his face. The mise-en-scene is saturated with religious imagery. This is not a flashback at all: it is a resurrected Che acceding to again partake in The Revolution even though he knows that the outcome is his own violent death. Soderbergh, too, knows the mystical truism of the revolutionary: el Che lives.

It’s a bold and uncompromising film. The director confronts his audience (presumably the arthouse liberal elite who fetishize Che as a countercultural icon) with a Che that contrasts starkly with their reified version. Soderbergh’s Che is not the poster-boy of a superficial left but a hardened, gun-toting, family-abandoning true-believing Communist man of action. His is a Che who could plausibly have called for “One, Two, Many Vietnams” to bleed dry the imperialist Yankees whose greed produces death. This is not the sanitized Guevara of 2004’s The Motorcycle Diaries shown chatting with indigenous miners or humanizing lepers. Soderbergh brazenly chastises his viewers: Guevara would not want to have an espresso with you while discussing politics, and you need to understand this.

This comes through in the film’s cinematic formalism. The first half of the film, subtitled The Argentine, is shot with the same frenetic profundity as Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers, and celebrates the same resurgent Third Worldist struggle. This section does not distance the audience from its subject as much as the second half of the film, The Guerilla, and offers a Guevara to which we can still relate, even if only as cinematic voyeurs. As he speaks at the UN, his arguments are not much more extreme than what can be heard in lecture halls at universities around the U.S.

The Guerilla, on the other hand, is a Che beyond our experience. This is a driven revolutionary, so convinced of his worldview that he foolishly and heroically fought the imperialist United States to the death in the harsh wilderness of Bolivia. Soderbergh, shockingly, shoots this portion of Che like a Vietnam War film, but with a crucial twist; he presents the never-seen half of such films, the perspective of the Vietnamese guerrillas, the camera following rebels rather than military men. Those fighting Che—the role occupied by the U.S. in Vietnam films—seem barbaric, excessive and cruel. It is a stellar and breathtaking narrative inversion.

Soderbergh’s fidelity to Che is admirable. The film is mostly in Spanish, with small kernels of Che’s thought sprinkled throughout. His humorlessness, his dedication and his unfaltering humanity in the face of the worst suffering are all portrayed well. To a Che scholar, it is a beautiful, haunting gut-punch of a film, bringing to life someone previously encountered only through diaries and speeches. Del Toro is what one would imagine Che to be like, and the camera is as captivated as the viewer by the magnetism and courageous self-belief brought to life, seldom straying from the swaggering figure.

The gut punch arrives with the execution scene, shot in the first person from the perspective of Che himself. The hero stands, ever sure even in his final moments of the path he has chosen, and is felled by a fusillade of gunfire. The director allows his audience to relate to Guevara only in his death—not to discuss politics, not to “help” the oppressed in our sanitized and superficial ways and not to ponder fundamental questions about being and humanity. We have not earned access to that Che. Soderbergh’s radical thesis is that the only experience we can share with someone as remarkable as Che Guevara is the act of dying. The narrative distance between audience and protagonist returns for the resurrection sequence. Only Che gets to live on; we have not yet evolved to live on the plane he inhabits now.

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