It’s a face recognized even by those who know nothing about the man behind it. He peers at us fromT-shirts and posters and magazines, a bearded man in a beret who 42 years after his death remains the stuff of myth.
But just who was Che Guevara?
Benicio Del Toro, Santiago Cabrera, Demián Bichir, Kahlil Mendez, Rodrigo Santoro, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Marisé Alvarez, Carlos Bardem, Franka Potente, Edgar Ramirez, Elvira Minguez, Benjamin Benitez, Victor Rasuk, Yul Vazquez, Julia Ormond, Lou Diamond Phillips, Joaquim de Almeida
(Focus Features; US theatrical: 12 Dec 2008 (Limited release); UK theatrical: 20 Feb 2009 (General release); 2008)
In his four-hour film “Che” director Steven Soderbergh digs at the mystique of the Latin American revolutionary.
But even Soderbergh admits that his subject - portrayed on screen by Benicio del Toro - remains a mystery.
“I suspect Che would find someone who does what I do for a living pretty silly,” Soderbergh said in a recent phone conversation from his Los Angeles home.
“I don’t think he cared much for movies. He didn’t have much use for the arts in general. The only mention of movies I could find in his writing was very dismissive. He viewed them as a propaganda tool of the imperialists.
“In the society Che was trying to build, I wouldn’t have a job.”
Still, there was something about the arc of Guevara’s life that appealed to Soderbergh.
The versatile and daring filmmaker is used to swimming against the current, dividing his projects between profitable popcorn (the “Ocean’s” franchise, “Erin Brockovich” ) and small, personal films that sometimes never make it past the festival circuit. .
He became fascinated by Che’s status as a true believer, a man who would risk everything to fight imperialism on behalf of Latin America’s impoverished masses.
“I didn’t want this film to feel like a typical biography,” Soderbergh said. “I didn’t want to do much with Che’s personal life, which wasn’t really relevant to what I was interested in.”
The key to getting a handle on Guevara, he said, is to understand his attraction to the jungle.
Born in Argentina and trained as a physician, Guevara joined Fidel Castro’s Cuban revolution in 1955 and led an army in that country’s mountains and jungles. He held important positions in the new Cuban government but left to organize Communist guerrilla units in the Congo and South America. He was killed in Bolivia in 1967.
“Out in the wild with a group of fighters must have been where Che felt the most complete,” Soderbergh said. “I got a sense of that when we were out in the middle of nowhere shooting the movie. I had a tiny feeling of being somewhere remote with a small group of people trying to accomplish something.
“Those were the circumstances in which we saw the best version of Che. It was an opportunity for him to combine intellect and action.”
But Soderbergh remains puzzled over how Guevara sustained his belief for so long in the face of so much adversity.
“We all get activated at some point about something. But our fervor tends to go up and down.
“Not Che. His ability to get up every morning and continue to go at it, day after day, year after year - that’s what impressed me. Whether you like him or not, he was constantly sacrificing himself for someone else. Often for someone he’d never met.”
The down side of Guevara’s revolutionary fervor, Soderbergh said, was that it overwhelmed just about everything else.
“Apparently not even the men who fought and died with Che really knew him,” Soderberg said. “There’s a great quote from a young doctor who fought alongside Che and was close to him. He said you had to love Che for free.
“Even this guy who admired Che was saying that he was impossible to embrace.”
His goal in making “Che,” Soderbergh said, was not to give a sense of what it’s like to be Che, but rather what it was like to be around Che.
That approach dictated the look of the film. For example, there are virtually no close-ups of Del Toro.
“It seemed it would be a violation of Che’s ethos to isolate him in the frame,” Soderbergh explained. “It was the opposite of what he was about. I purposely grouped him with other characters whenever I could.”
So daunting is the Guevara legend that after years of planning to play Che, Del Toro got cold feet as filming approached.
“Benicio was feeling pretty anxious. I said, ‘Look, let’s just acknowledge that it’s impossible to do this. You can’t get all of somebody in a movie, especially someone who lived a life like this. Let’s just accept it and do it anyway.’ “
Soderbergh said he tried to be totally objective.
“I’m just trying to give an impression of what I learned about the man through all my research.”
The results haven’t been without controversy. A screening of “Che” in Miami, where Cuban exiles are a powerful political force, ended in a screaming match.
“You can imagine the response,” Soderbergh said. “They were livid. But given some people’s experience, I can understand that. For certain people, Che is totally defined by what happened in the six months after the success of the Cuban revolution. He supervised the executions of Batista supporters. And he never expressed any remorse about it.
“People who consider him a butcher won’t be satisfied by our film.”
“Che” often feels more like a documentary than a fictional re-creation, something that Soderbergh attributes to the manner in which it was filmed in Mexico, Puerto Rico, Bolivia, Spain and New York City.
“The feel was dictated by the speed with which we were shooting. We had a tight schedule and little money, so you didn’t have time to act. We did everything in two or three takes and moved on. You didn’t have time for lots of analysis ... which was a good thing.
“I warned all the actors that I wouldn’t have time to be as overtly supportive as I’d like and that they’d have to take care of themselves.
“But the fact that they were all adrift bound them to each other and resulted in a sense of collusion that comes across in the movie. What happened to Che’s soldiers happened to the cast. That’s why it feels lived-in rather than acted.”
Soderbergh says he’s always working on two or three projects.
“I’m often surprised that so many well-regarded filmmakers don’t work more. The only way to get better is to shoot. And my metabolism is more accelerated now than when I started out in this business. If there’s no money for a big movie, you make a little movie.”
Director Steven Soderbergh talks about his projects after “Che”:
“The Informant” (Sept. 18): “A comedy that couldn’t have been more different” from “Che,” Soderbergh says. Matt Damon plays price-fixing whistleblower Mark Whitacre.
“The Girlfriend Experience ” (2009): He says he’s putting the finishing touches on this “low-budget movie about a female escort in Manhattan.”
“Cleo” (2011): “This spring we were supposed to do a musical in 3-D about Cleopatra,” starring Catherine Zeta-Jones. “But one of our actors had a scheduling problem, and we had to push it to next year. As a result I had a couple of weeks when I wasn’t working on anything, and I was really disoriented. It was the first time that had happened in 10 years.”