Friday, May 30, 2008

Branding Che

At this week's Cannes Film Festival, the main event was US director Steven Soderbergh's two-part biography of Ernesto "Che" Guevara. The first part, tentatively titled "The Argentine," deals with his role in the Cuban revolution, which took power in 1959, while the second ("The Guerrilla") covers his failed attempt to foment revolution in Bolivia, which led to his execution in 1967 and, ironically, made him an icon. Puerto Rican actor Benicio del Toro plays the role of Guevara in the four-hour-plus epic.

Its length, and slow-moving narrative, led film critic John Powers to call it “almost unreleasable in its current form in any country in the world,” while the New York Times's A.O. Scott wrote that Guevara's "brutal role in turning a revolutionary movement into a dictatorship goes virtually unmentioned" and that Del Toro's romanticized portrayal of Guevara was "naïve and incomplete, at worst sentimental and dishonest. More to the point, perhaps, it is not very interesting."

Predictably, perhaps, the Argentine press had a different take. In the Buenos Aires daily Clarín, Diego Lere suggested that
"the film may lack emotion and dramatic force..but Soderbergh certainly manages to make the life of an iconic personality, difficult to relate on film, credible. It's a 'Che' that takes the personality from the poster and returns him to the sphere of a revolutionary's daily labor." In La Nación, Diego Batlle wrote that it was "well narrated and carefully produced, avoiding historical errors and the artistic license of so many Hollywood biopics." In all likelihood, then, the full epic will find at least a niche audience in Buenos Aires if not elsewhere.

Meanwhile, Che made a reappearance on the streets of Buenos Aires the other day as a four-meter statue en route to his legal birthplace in the city of Rosario (Jon Lee Anderson, a consultant to Soderbergh whose biography of the revolutionary is the gold standard in Che studies, says the birth was registered in Rosario but actually took place in the province of Misiones). The statue takes its cue from Alberto Korda's famous photograph of Che, which appears on Cuban currency and in many other places.

Argentines, of course, have tried to make Che into a tourist attraction, especially in the Córdoba province town of Alta Gracia where he spent his formative years. One of his former homes (despite elite family connections, the financially struggling Guevaras always rented) is now the Museo Ernesto Che Guevara, which focuses on Che's youth; when I attended the Feria Internacional de Turismo in Buenos Aires a couple years ago, Alta Gracia used a Che impersonator to staff its booth (see the photo to the right).

Of course, that's not so different from what Soderbergh publicity people did to promote the movie. In a break between the two halves, they passed out bags of sandwiches, mineral water, and other goodies that included Kit Kat Bars (produced by the multinational Nestlé, which Guevara would have despised). According to Clarín, this came to be called "McChe," while La Nación dubbed it "Che's happy meal."

Following up, Ben Ehrenreich has a new article on Che's status as a style icon in The Los Angeles Times, and the separation of the man from the image - according to one cyclist on Venice Beach, Che was "the guy who invented those mojitos." Even Argentina isn't immune to that, though; last year, in the Misiones town of Puerto Iguazú, I saw a twenty-something with a Che/Korda tee-shirt that read "I don't know who he is, but I know he's fashionable."

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