|Review of Soderbergh’s Che movie quotes Ambassador Jayatilleka’s Fidel book|
|Thursday, 15 January 2009|
A review of Stephen movie on Che Guevara in Culture Wars, the online review of the Institute of Ideas, London, makes reference to Fidel’s Ethics of Violence by Dr Dayan Jayatilleka. The reviewer, Nathan Coombs is a PhD candidate in Political Philosophy at the University of London, writing his thesis on ‘Revolutions in History: from Russia to Iran’. While Ambassador Jayatilleka’s is the only book he cites in his review, a footnote to the article announces that a full length review of the book is due to appear in the March 2009 issue of the journal Radical Philosophy.
The Culture Wars review follows:
Che: Part One (2008), directed by Steven Soderbergh
The distributor’s press pack gives a wonderfully disingenuous justification for this retelling of Che Guevera’s story. Producer Laura Bickford claims Che is ‘an image of youthful rebellion and idealism’. She was probably referring to Gael García Bernal dancing the Chipi Chipi in Walter Salles’ enjoyable romp Diarios de motocicleta [The Motorcycle Diaries] (2004) rather than the lumbering Benicio Del Toro ordering the execution of a renegade fighter in Soderbergh’s Che.
The vain youthful idealism and rush for instant results characteristic of the unrealistic rebels in the recent Der Baader Meinhof Komplex [The Baader Meinhof Complex] (2008) is replaced here by the ethical waging of guerrilla war backed by mass support. The violence of the rebel struggle is not whitewashed, yet Sodenbergh resists the temptation to turn the film into a morality tale about the corruption of violence and the excesses of revolutionary enthusiasm.
The film spends most of its time in the jungle, as the rebels build in strength and confidence in their guerrilla war against the Batista regime. Punctuating the action, we cut forward occasionally to Guevara’s 1964 CBS interview in the United States and his speech at the United Nations. This is perhaps the least interesting stylistic and thematic element - the shaky black and white segments are much too reminiscent of Oliver Stone’s biopics such as JFK (1991) and Nixon (1995). In Cuba, however, Soderbergh is on firmer footing. Avoiding any temptation to pop-psychologise the revolutionaries – through tedious flashbacks to the youth of our protagonists – the action plunges straight into the struggle. It is the moral code of conduct that is given thematic precedence in the script. As testified by the seven years of research put into the production, and the new scholarship on the matter, the filmmakers seem to have got it right in their portrayal of the Cuban struggle as a uniquely ethically waged guerrilla war.
In his recent book, Fidel’s Ethics of Violence, Dayan Jayatilleka claimed a singular place for Cuba in the global revolutionary movement. It represented what he describes as the: ‘Cuban synthesis… the moral-ethical element, humanism, dialogue with Christianity and other religions as sources of the moral-ethical, socialism and a militant commitment to anti-imperialism and rebellion’ (1, p12). To demonstrate what the filmmakers also seem to believe is the important point – along with what Jayatilleka claims led to the collapse of the global revolutionary movement, namely: barbaric internecine fighting between rival groups and general loss of the moral advantage through atrocity – Soderbergh repeatedly shows Guevara giving his fighters opportunities to leave back to their civilian lives, even if he derides them as ‘maricones’ (faggots) and ‘cobardes’ (cowards). These scenes are particularly significant in understanding the general collapse in support for other long-running guerrilla movements such as Colombia’s Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), which has a zero tolerance policy for soldiers wishing to return to civilian life, thus leaving a trail of heart breaking stories of the de facto imprisonment of its idealistic volunteers.
Fidel Castro was the head of the Cuban guerrilla force, and it is reassuring to see Soderbergh acknowledge his moral and tactical superiority over Guevara. Although not enshrined as a cultural icon like Che, Castro was the guiding moral, even messianic, force behind the success of the guerrillas. Repeatedly, he has to pull Guevara back into line and explain the logic of a certain tactical moderation and good sense, such as signing agreements of cordiality with rival urban opposition groups. In prison, Castro wrote the famous essay History Will Absolve Me and finally, even if Che’s face remains on a million Rage Against the Machine t-shirts in teenagers’ closets across the world, this film will not only absolve Castr, but also put him back in his rightful place as the most significant leader of the revolution. The script even goes out of its way to hammer home the point, when new recruit (Colombian actress Catalina Sandino Morena, best known for Maria Full of Grace (2004)) cites Castro’s essay to Guevara as her inspiration for joining the struggle. The dynamic of the film ultimately revolves around the flaws of Guevara in respect to the near-perfect judgement of Castro.
Considering Soderbergh’s patchy filmic background, aesthetically the film could have gone either way. Much has been made of his use of a new digital cinema camera called the RED: a pet project of the billionaire owner of Oakleys sunglasses. Digital cinema cameras do allow the abandonment of the discipline imposed by the practical constraints of celluloid film production. Without needing to worry about limited supplies of film stock, many filmmakers use this freedom to throw out all conventions in filmmaking practice. What results is often a sort of a TV docu-drama aesthetic of shaky camerawork and arbitrary camera angles, mixed up with quick-fire editing. Although with Traffic (2000) Soderbergh showed skill in marshalling this aesthetic to his story, the fear on my part was that this four-hour epic (this review is only of the first part of the film) would be a tedious grind of faux documentary ‘realism’.
Without intending to pick on her, producer Laura Bickford gives a ridiculous justification for the use of the camera: ‘It was always Soderbergh’s intention to film as much as possible using only natural light…One way the production was able cut down on time was through Soderbergh’s use of an innovative new camera: the RED’. Now, as any good cinematographer will tell you, contrary to the bizarre dogma that circulates on the technically illiterate peripheries of the film production world, in fact motion picture film is the most suitable format for natural-light shoots, as its high dynamic range can best accommodate the extremes of single key lighting (eg. natural light). We can only presume, therefore, that Soderbergh chose the camera simply for novelty’s sake or for increasing the curiosity factor amongst the burgeoning world of wanabee filmmakers for whom the camera’s arrival is received as the filmmaking equivalent of the second coming of Christ.
The point of this technical excursus is that there is always a correspondence between content and form. It was to my great relief therefore that in spite of the use of the new camera, Soderbergh has brought a disciplined and classic aesthetic to the subject matter. Much like the waning belief in ‘radical democracy’ that was once all the rage in theoretical circles after the fall of Communism, the narrative of how digital cinema would radically democratise filmmaking and bring its tools into the hands of masses, has up to this point found no empirical verification. This ‘revolution’ has done precisely zero to improve the quality of filmmaking or the range and depth of the themes explored. Yet, the strength of this narrative persists to the point where the UK Film Council will only fund short films produced on digital cameras and is currently investing millions in the digital theatre network on the now discredited premise that it will expand the range of films shown by reducing distribution costs. The radical democratisation thesis in both art and politics has proved illusory.
In much the same way, against the glib celebration of ‘youthful idealism’ that Che could have been, the casting tells a different story. Benicio Del Toro is a full ten years older than was the real-life Guevera when the rebels took Havana, and the 45-year-old Demián Bichir is also packing roughly an extra decade upon Castro’s real age at the time. This shows an intent on the director’s part to add gravitas to the story and take it in a very different direction to the teen angst of Walter Salles’ take on Guevara’s political awakening.
That is not to say the film is perfect. To fully round off this generally intelligent and mature take on the revolutionaries, we probably would have needed to see more of the social and political context. For instance, at the end of the film we witness the victory of rebels in taking the town of Santa Clara. Although we are rooting for them all the way, there is no emotional impact when they finally do take the city. In comparison, the long-banned Soy Cuba [I Am Cuba] (1964), funded by the Soviet Mosfilm and directed by Mikhail Kalatozov, builds up to the final revolution with a relentless social realist emphasis on the exploited and humiliated Cuban citizens. The emotional impact of the victory of the revolution is euphoric. In Soderbergh’s film though you feel more like saying ‘Well done chaps’ and sharing a cigar with them than joining the (absent) masses on the streets.
Many would agree that revolutions against tyranny are a good thing. The tricky question comes with what happens next. Only with Che: Part Two (2008) will we see if Soderbergh sustains his unusually grown-up approach by maintaining objectivity and commitment to the revolution in representing Castro’s consolidation of the revolutionary state and Guevara’s itchy feet. It would be all too tempting for Guevara the idealist, the martyr, to be thrown in a spotlight of righteousness, whilst that wicked anti-democrat Castro festers in post-revolutionary malaise. This is what I truly hope the second film will not be. I look forward to finding out.
Nathan Coombs discusses Dayan Jayatilleka’s book Fidel’s Ethics of Violence and the Cuban Revolution at length in Radical Philosophy magazine, issue 154, March 2009.
Fidel’s Ethics of Violence, Dayan Jayatilleka. Pluto Press, 2007.
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