29 December 2008

CHE: Part 1 / The Argentine (Dir. Steven Soderbergh, 2008, Spain) - 'People are nothing but the representation of an ideology'

Political cinema seems to have really come of age ever since George W Bush decided to elect himself president. Hollywood considers itself to have been at the forefront of this political renaissance but the studios have always shown a reluctance to finance films that are overtly political in their content. The capitalist nature of an industry like Hollywood naturally favours conservatism as it seeks to offer escapism and temporary solutions to audiences encouraged to perceive cinema as merely an entertaining distraction. Yet such a coercive ethos seems to be absent from much of European cinema and the film industry of other nations. When Spike Lee embarked on his controversial 'Malcolm X' project in the 90s, the initial commitment by Warner Bros. ended in a much publicised battle between a director who felt he had been betrayed and a studio that seemed to back track on its promise of supporting the political interests of a film which was documenting one of the most influential leaders of the 2oth Century.

Perhaps race was the last thing on the minds of the studio, perhaps what they were scared of more than anything else was the idea of financing a film that romanticised the whole idea of political revolution and black militancy. Ideologically, Malcolm X for any Hollywood studio was going to be problematic, and such a condition of political amnesia and conservative consensus still determines funding and financing decisions. Even today, a film with a strong political dimension is unlikely to be given the green light by a studio unless a certain star or a powerful director is attached to the project. But even then limitations are immediately imposed, usually in the form of a severely restricted budget and an encouragement to make alterations and changes to an original screenplay which may be too political. It is safe to conclude that Hollywood prefers films that are apolitical, reinforcing the dominant political point of view.

Soderbergh’s new 2 part political documentary on the revolutionary guerrilla fighter and leader, Che Guevera, is being mentioned in the mainstream press as if this is another extension and confirmation of Hollywood’s recent love affair with political cinema and undying endorsement of liberalism. Yet I was surprised to discover that the commercially and artistically genuine combination of Benicio Del Toro and Steven Soderbergh to make a film on of the most significant cultural icons of the modern era was denied financing by every major Hollywood studio. Costing up to $60 million, the budget for ‘Che’ was raised mainly through pre selling the distribution rights. Had Soderbergh gone to the studios with a proposal that criticised and denounced Che Guevara’s Marxist ideologies and anti-American sentiments then surely the studios would have been fighting over each other to finance the film.

Yet when you consider the track record of a film maker like Soderbergh who learned quite shrewdly to balance the commercials interests of the studio and his own auteur pursuits, it is still hard to believe he was turned away in such a disheartening way. So can we then say this is Soderbergh’s first ‘world cinema’ film? It definitely adheres to many of the conventions that makes a film to be categorised as world cinema; the use of subtitles, the documentary newsreel approach, the episodic narrative, non closure, natural lighting, the issue of funding. In my opinion, it is undoubtedly an example of world cinema film making and perhaps this explains why it is currently being snubbed by American critics and award nominations; its ‘otherness’ deems it to be foreign and thus it has naturally been pushed to one side.

Premiering at Cannes in 2008, ‘Che’ is by far Soderbergh’s most mature, political and accomplished film of his career. It is also one of the fiercest and bravest political films in recent years, and a film that seems to celebrate the possibility of revolutionary ideals by offering a stinging attack on American imperialism. A huge fan of Gillo Pontecorvo’s ‘The Battle of Algiers’, a classic study of colonialism, terrorism and the resistance of an entire nation, Soderbergh captures such a raw, undiluted and energetic spirit of human resistance and empathy in many of the key moments in ‘Che’, and such a parallel offers one of the clearest ways of looking at a uncomplicated film like ‘Che’. It is uncomplicated foremost in the documentary approach Soderbergh utilises as a stylistic technique, opting for very simple camera set ups, keeping the camera at a distance, and observing the figure of Guevara as though he was just another manifestation of what is represented as the people’s revolution.

The authenticity on display is a remarkable achievement for Soderbergh, underlining a faith in realism that has been absent from much of his work. The observational documentary style and deliberate rejection of historically emotional moments ensures the film never sentimentalises the revolution and that Guevara remains at a distance as a mythical political enigma. Soderbergh’s real triumph with this intimate political epic is the zeal with which he captures and depicts the process of revolution, not being afraid to focus on the micro details of peripheral characters, so that by the time we reach the capture of Santa Clara in 1958, the ideology of Marxist revolution is simply not another unexplained and lingering Hollywood after thought. Benicio Del Toro spent 7 years researching Che Guevara and he was the one who approached Soderbergh to direct. Perfectly cast, Benicio Del Toro’s astonishing performance overshadows both Frank Langella and Sean Penn’s much talked about portrayal of two other misunderstood political figures; Richard Nixon and Harvey Milk. Bearing an uncanny resemblance to Guevara, Del Toro never imitates, embodying the humanism of the man with a humility and ease that makes him appear benign but shrewd in the decisions he takes. The humanism Del Toro invests in his performance is wholly convincing and it is this spark of humanity which seems to be missing from the performances of both Langella and Penn. Soderbergh and Del Toro collaborate brilliantly to ensure that Guevara is seen in the context of an infinite set of roles including that of a teacher, leader, poet, orator, negotiator, and guerrilla fighter; the achievements of Guevara are simply awe inspiring.

In today’s skewed political world, Guevara would have been demonised as a vicious terrorist, not a revolutionary leader. The black and white sequences that depict his short visit to New York so that he could address the United Nations about the glaringly obvious political hypocrisy propagated by American imperialism and its domination over the economic situation in Latin America is yet another confirmation of the film’s fearless and uncompromising approach to the supposedly inflammatory political content. A revolutionary addressing the United Nations is a scenario that would be all but impossible in today’s current climate as revolutionaries are not political leaders anymore; they are vilified as terrorists and paraded in the media as left wing agitators who wish to make socialism a real possibility.

At the end of the film, when Guevara and his army get word that the American stooge ‘Batista’ has fled Havana, an incredible sense of euphoria sweeps across the town of Santa Clara. It is an unflinchingly poignant moment in light of the forced liberation that has taken place in Iraq recently. The liberation we see in Santa Clara is truthful, honest and relatively bloodless because revolution is in no way forced, it has sprung from a real determination and hunger to want freedom at all costs. No wider political or economic motivation exists. It truly is a people’s revolution unlike the recent one in Iraq. Liberation cannot be imposed upon a nation; it has to come out of a genuine want for change. As Guevara and his revolutionary army leave Santa Clara to make their journey to Havana so that they can join Fidel Castro, Guevara instructs a group of soldiers to return the Cadillac they have requisitioned as it would look inappropriate and hypocritical for revolutionary heroes like themselves to be seen in the same light as the corrupt, ruling elite which they have only just defeated. It seems like a trivial moment and relatively insignificant in the context of what has happened and what is about to unfold in Cuba, but the political value he sees in the symbol of the car illustrates how men like Guevara were true to their beliefs and that political leadership demanded that one act responsibly and truthfully at all times. Such moral and political integrity has come to define the greatness of men like Che Guevara.

1 comment:

  1. An excellent appraisal of what is a fascinatingly oblique film. I have noticed that Soderbergh in interviews has been unwilling to explain his 'artistic intent' (for want of a better phrase) of what he has made, adding to its enigma.

    As an aside, congratulations on what is a thoroughly well-written, insightful blog. I have added you to my blogroll, and look forward to your future writings!