I was walking along the platform in the train station one day when a figure rose up alongside me. It was the kind of presence that felt awesome, but familiar, as if you had been awaiting it for some time, even if you didn’t know it; and now that it was here, it seemed right, even though you hadn’t yet laid eyes on it. It was grand. And true. It was..
a giant movie poster of Steven Soderbergh’s Che: Part One, depicting the only known actor they could dare to cast in the title role - and my secret luhvah - Benicio del Toro.
Like most people, my first experience of Benicio (which I lovingly call him by virtue of him being my luhvah) was as Fred Fenster in The Usual Suspects. But probably unlike most people, this prompted me to doggedly seek out every one of his screen appearances up until that point. Yes, even including “Kid sitting on car” in Madonna’s La Isla Bonita video. (And since I hadn’t noticed him as Dario the henchman in Licence to Kill, I of course had to watch it again. I am surgical in my admiration.) My love for him was complete after his brilliant work in Traffic, and was cemented with 21 Grams.
Now, I’m not a fan type. I don’t want to see photos of actors getting coffee or know that they hate terrycloth robes and will only wear suede. When I discover talent I admire, I’m only interested in the talent, And in the case of Benicio, even before I saw him cast, I knew he was Che. I was waiting for it.
Che: Part One is the story of the Argentine Ernesto Guevara’s influential role in the Castro-led Cuban rebellion that overthrew Batista in the late 1950s. The film unfolds exactly as it should: as a peek into the evolution of a revolutionary. By the time it ends, we know that we have seen only one story and one layer of the making of the man who would become a symbol of justice and ideological rebellion for generations. Soderbergh’s treatment is a subdued, matter-of-fact telling of the events between the meeting of Che and Castro in Mexico and the taking of Havana that led to Batista’s ouster. Interspersed with scenes from Che’s addresses to the UN General Assembly and his interviews with American journalists is a shot by shot account of the war with Batista’s troops. In doing this, the film tries to reconcile the mythical image of the man on which many anecdotes are based with the simple strength of Che as a tactician of guerrilla warfare, as a doctor, disciplinarian, teacher, thinker; a diplomat with great passion but great patience.
The telling of the story is half the success of the film. The scenes of the rebels planning their strategy in the mountains take us immediately to Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls. It is as if Soderbergh and (screenplay writer) Buchman have transposed Hemingway’s narrative of a Spanish (language) revolution to the screen. The intimacy is the same - we feel as though we are in the trenches and sleeping in the rain – although the urgency is not. Hemingway’s account benefits tremendously from the stories of the horrors committed against the people under Franco’s regime, and from the unrelenting sounds and signs of explosion and attack. The film does not. But it doesn’t suffer too much because of it. It also shares with Hemingway the sense of camaraderie among those fighting desperately for an ultimate good, and in this portrayal, the rest of the cast shines. Outstanding among them is Santiago Cabrera, who plays Camilo Cienfuegos, a wise-cracking comandante who shows great love for his brothers in the revolution. Less impressive is the portrayal of Fidel Castro, perhaps less a function of the actor than of the parts of the man they chose to portray. The director was right not to give too much importance to the leader - after all, this is not Castro’s story – but they failed to depict a man who could inspire the birth of a new Cuba. And this they could have done, even with the little exposure which they rightly allowed him.
The other half of the success of the film is Benicio. He is Che. And not in the way in which Jamie Foxx ‘was’ Ray Charles. Not in that kind of Saturday Night Live impression way by which we seem to be so easily impressed and are so eager to reward. By the end of the film, Benicio’s face is a different one from when he meets Castro in the beginning. It carries the burden of responsibility for freeing the people of Cuba; the worry of perishing from asthma before the job is done; the concern for his column of fighters and the pain of seeing the peasants’ struggle. By the end of the film, Benicio’s face is the face of Che Guevara. And you leave the theatre anxious to see that face again, and to continue the journey in Part Two of this inspiring film.