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A review of Che, playing this week at the Varsity in a special “Roadshow” edition.

'You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.' –Harvey Dent, The Dark Knight Steven Soderbergh's two part Che biopic might agree with the above statement. Even in the comic book world of The Dark Knight, however, notions of hero and villain are not so simple. In the first installment (to be released by itself as The Argentine), Ernesto 'Che' Guevara is an idealistic individual. A man who executes heroic feats in defense of what he believes to be a just and worthy cause. The exciting, cinemascope photography emphasizes that this part of the story is all glorious battles and youthful exuberance. Not a lark, by any means, but a successful campaign that was massively popular. Told almost as a road-trip movie in the jungle interspersed with vérité style footage of a post-revolution Che's trip to the United Nations, this first section is all ideology, strategies, and words: Words translated, words interpreted, words misunderstood. A litany of speeches and maneuvers, both political and military. It feels at once an attempt to strictly recount facts from Che's writings (on which the screenplay is based) and a meditation on revolutionary ideology and semantics. An image of the revolution to take away from this movie is a Cuban guerrilla firing his weapon at Batista government soldiers, a Coca-Cola sign contemptuously hanging on the wall behind him. In the second part (to be released solo as The Guerrilla), Che is so consumed by his dogma, he literally gives up his identity. The cry 'Homeland or Death!' sounds nice, but what could 'homeland' possibly mean to an Argentinean who has spent his youth in Cuba, the Congo, and Bolivia. Now a grizzled man in his 40s, he must travel with dyed hair and false teeth and assume the name Ramon, then later Fernando. He is an extranjero: a stranger. The locals do not trust him, and the government is hunting him. The flashy filmmaking, shifting chronology, and even the aspect ratio, present in the first film give way to muted, monochromatic compositions and deliberate pacing. It's something like if Ken Loach directed a remake of Aguirre Wrath of God. Like Mickey Rourke's character in The Wrestler, Guevara seems to only find meaning in doing what it is he does best, even if it destroys him. Note the similar title even: The Guerrilla. His quest for revolution becomes as quixotic as Arthur's quest for the Holy Grail. As commentary on the events of the first film, the second is especially grim and tragic. The image to take away from this one is an asthmatic Che, looking more like Charles Manson than the Che of the first film, falling off his horse, then pulling at its reins in anger, before stabbing it in the neck when it refuses to budge. Were he not pulled off by his comrades, he would have literally beaten a dead horse. I love that this movie makes no sweeping attempts at interpreting its central character, at burdening the viewer with standard, didactic biopic moments, or even explaining every detail that pops up. This will drive some viewers to frustration and many others to boredom. The movie's cool, calculated distance allows for a broader reading and interpretation. Was Che a hero or a villain? I don't think it matters. Existentially he was a man so consumed by his ideology that he gave up his identity, then his life. Along the path he inspired, healed, frightened and killed. To what end? His visage adorns t-shirts and handbags, and Fidel Castro is still president of Cuba, thanks in part to Che's work. I want to see Che again, possibly as separate pieces, because it is a dense, epic work that bears revisiting. I may end up disagreeing with all of my initial assessments, and I have no problem with that. I would recommend seeing Che in it's 4 1/2 hour long (with 15 minute intermission) incarnation at the Varsity this week, but if you miss it, the two films are being released separately soon, and I believe available through On Demand cable one way or another.

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