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El Che (1997)

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Title: El Che (1997)

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Emilia Mazer ...
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Jesús Albornoz ...
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Marcio Almeida ...
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Pablo Baki ...
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Ernesto Bo ...
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2 May 1997 (Argentina)  »

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El Che - Ernesto Guevara: Enquête sur un homme de légende  »

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An Informative Portrait of the Enigmatic Revolutionary
19 August 2007 | by (western US) – See all my reviews

I was surprised to see just two other brief comments about this informative documentary, a moving tribute to an enigmatic individual, Ernesto "Che" Guevara de la Serna. The point of view expressed is pointedly leftist and pro-Guevara, and the handsome, smiling, charismatic revolutionary is romanticized without apology. Accepting this perspective, one can better appreciate the strengths of the film. Eschewing the safe, presumably rewarding life of a doctor, Guevara opted instead to become a writer, philosopher, and revolutionary, hoping to overturn the poverty, hunger, and political repression that as an intelligent and idealistic young man, he witnessed all over South America, where the corrupt elite through authoritarian control routinely enslaved and oppressed their fellows in order to secure their own comforts and pursuit of luxury. Aside from Guevara's legendary participation in the Cuban Revolution that ensconced Fidel Castro firmly in power, he apparently played a notable role in such important historical events as the Cuban Missile Crisis of October, 1962, where he allegedly hoped for Cuban control of the missiles in order to launch a few of them at American cities.

I hadn't realized that Guevara was born into an upper middle-class, Argentine family, nor that he was a lifelong asthmatic who became a medical student and a doctor, which played a significant role in his development. His background appears to be at odds with his reputed casual attitude toward personal hygiene. An important aspect of his personality, I think, is that he seemed driven to seek personal freedom, which was exemplified by his motorcycle journey through South America. I would surmise that this trait caused him ultimately to reject any routine or situation that hemmed him in, however promising and productive it may have been, including the typically interesting but conventional life of a doctor, the responsibilities imposed by his marriages and children, and even his role as a powerful government minister once Castro's band of revolutionaries became the established authority in Cuba. It probably also included his failed efforts to instigate revolution in the Congo and in Bolivia.

In my opinion, the film might have explored more thoroughly what prompted Che's transformation from committed idealist to ruthless revolutionary and then powerful government bureaucrat. We see the medical student, the young adventurer, the political ideologue, the mountain guerrilla, and then a new character emerges that seems to have thoroughly eclipsed the old one -- the stern government minister who oversees the trials and summary executions of hundreds of Cubans from the Batista regime, and in the aftermath of the bloody purge, easily slips into the role of Fidel's right hand man. Elsewhere, it has been alleged that this change did not come overnight and that he also showed little mercy toward enemy combatants and supposed "informants and traitors" while fighting in the Sierra Maestra. Nevertheless, the difference in appearance between the severely barbered Castro and Guevara as a young lawyer and a young medical student, respectively, and their wildly whiskered appearance as guerrillas and political leaders, is interesting and also prompts speculation as to its specific genesis, other than the obvious effects of roughing it in primitive conditions. I noted in Castro's young, clean-shaven face something of the self-rationalizing, bullying aspect that becomes more evident in time, even when obscured by his beard. Che is more the handsome, intelligent, good-humored idealist who has not fully taken the measure of his compatriot, Fidel, while Castro appears more pragmatic, selfish, and calculating, an ambitious individual determined to retain control of the developing situation, come what may. This may help to explain Guevara's apparent early success as a political leader, followed all too soon by his effective banishment from the levers of power and his return to the bush as a recommitted revolutionary, a development that soon led to his untimely end.

After his brief round of globe-trotting diplomacy capped by his public criticism of encroaching Soviet influence in Cuba, then his failure to foment revolution in central Africa, other sources confirm that the Russians (under Breshnev) wanted Che stymied and neutralized and instructed their clients in Bolivia not to aid him. Meanwhile, the Americans (under LBJ) directed the CIA and the Green Berets to train a hand-picked Bolivian brigade to hunt him down and destroy his rag-tag guerrilla force. Apparently, Fidel did little to help him, despite later denials of a developing rift, and may have secretly hoped he would be killed. The issue of Guevara's capture and subsequent execution are adequately covered but not explored in detail, and the footage of his body on display is instructive. Although such subject matter is more often gruesome and off-putting, in this film there is little of it except in this instance, where its inclusion is important to the story. One bears witness to the uniformed reactionaries who through the chain of command quickly carried out his death sentence, and the way they so easily excused themselves from what they had done, while something about Guevara, himself, eerily emerges as the photographer dispassionately examined his corpse from several angles. Clearly, he was dead, but he looked almost alive, like Christ following his crucifixion. One well may wonder if these pictures contributed to the local legend (in central Bolivia, where he was killed) that he was some sort of modern day, Latin American Christ. This footage is backed by the lilting lament of pan pipes and is the film's most poignant moment. The narrator then mentions that his body was mutilated and somehow disposed of. Other sources state that his hands were amputated, ostensibly for purposes of identification, as if his finger prints would be inadequate, and that his body was buried near a remote air strip. In the late nineties, his remains were recovered and transferred to a memorial at Santa Clara, Cuba, the city he liberated from Batista, prompting the old dictator to flee the island.


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