Argentinean revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara has long been a student hero – his beret-wearing, long-haired image adorning countless walls in university buildings world-wide even before his death, aged 39, by a Bolivian military firing-squad in 1967. His mid-20th Century brand of revolutionary Marxism may now be more lampooned than respected – the fall of Communism in the old Soviet Union combining with more factual, historical accounts of just what it was that Guevara got up to during his interventions in Cuba and Bolivia in the 1950s and 60s to somewhat shatter his largely self-created legend – but he remains one of the most recognisable figures of an era with more than its share of icons.
To attempt a biopic of a figure whose image is so well-known, and yet who remains so contentious, is no easy task. Guevara may well have left a wealth of diaries recording his numerous adventures, yet for a man with such an eye on history, who was fully aware of his global fame during his lifetime, and aware of the power he could have to inspire, his actions in life as well as his legacy remain in considerable dispute. Was he a freedom-fighting hero, standing up for the little man against the might of the powerful – as has been claimed by the likes of Nelson Mandela, among others – or was he “the butcher of La Cabana”, the man responsible for the execution of countless Cubans during the revolution he, with Fidel Castro, helped to lead?
This is, of course, by no means the first film based around Guevara’s life. That honour goes to the Paco Rabal-starring 1968 offering El Che Guevara, put into production almost as soon as news of the revolutionary’s death began to filter through. The most famous remains 1969’s Che!, with the implausible pairing of Omar Sharif in the title role and Jack Palance as Fidel Castro – a shameless attempt by Hollywood to cash in on the growing legend that seemingly made no effort whatsoever to give a remotely sympathetic, let alone balanced, look at such a complex figure. There have been countless other appearances of Guevara in numerous films and biopics since, from Antonio Banderas in 1996’s Evita through to Gael Garcia Bernal in 2005’s The Motorcycle Diaries, looking at the young Guevara’s adventures in Latin America prior to the Cuban Revolution.
Now it is Benicio Del Toro’s turn to play this ultimate countercultural icon in a project that the actor has been championing for years. In the process, the film may have expanded so much that the distributors have been forced to split it in two (the running time of the original cut was well over four hours), but it has also built up a fair amount of anticipation – not least thanks to its rapturous reception at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, where Del Toro picked up the Best Actor gong. Somehow, despite Del Toro now being two years older than Guevara was when he died, the actor – well-known for his uncanny knack for physical transformation – also looks and feels more like Che than anyone before on screen. But this is not just a tour de force for Del Toro – it is also a long-overdue return to form for director Steven Soderberg, still suffering from a diminished reputation after the embarrassing sequels that were Ocean’s Twelve and Ocean’s Thirteen. If you hadn’t already guessed by the sheer number of quality movies that are out this month, we’re entering awards season – expect this to pick up a number of nominations at the very least.