VENICE, ITALY - Director Steven Soderbergh will use recently declassified CIA files to make a $20 million film that’s likely to puncture the romantic myth of Ernesto “Che” Guevara, who gained cult status for his role in the 1959 Cuban revolution.
Neither Mr. Guevara’s interest in torture and firing squads, documented by the poet Armando Valladares, nor his remark after the Cuban Missile Crisis — that he would have fired nuclear weapons at the United States — were covered in the recent art-house hit “The Motorcycle Diaries.” The revolutionary activist also called for “a dozen Vietnams.”
The diaries, written by Mr. Guevara when he was 23, related a youthful trip through Latin America in which he became a Marxist after seeing poverty in the 1950s.
Known for his cutting-edge approach to films (Mr. Soderbergh’s back catalog includes “Sex, Lies and Videotape,” “Erin Brockovich,” an indictment of industrial malpractice, and “Traffic,” an epic of the drug wars) the innovative director’s “Che!” is likely to be as controversial as “Traffic,” which won him an Oscar for best director in 2000.
Benicio Del Toro, who earned the Academy Award for best supporting actor for his role in the film, will star as the Argentine-born Mr. Guevara.
Mr. Soderbergh said at the Venice Film Festival that he’ll begin shooting the movie next spring after the release of his latest film, “The Good German,” a murder mystery set in postwar Berlin with George Clooney and Cate Blanchett.
Mr. Guevara — whose guerrilla movement in the 1950s was romanticized as the “story of a hero” — was first given the big screen treatment by director Richard Fleischer in 1969, with Omar Sharif in the lead. Antonio Banderas followed in the film adaptation of the Broadway hit “Evita” in 1996. “Commandante,” Oliver Stone’s biopic about Fidel Castro, was also seen as a flattering portrait of a regime now scorned by most Cubans.
But with Spanish actor Javier Bardem expected portrayal of Fidel Castro, Mr. Soderbergh is likely to probe the Cuban leader’s concern that Mr. Guevara was a more charismatic figure, a worry that led to their split in 1965.
After depicting Mr. Guevara’s rise to iconic status, Mr. Soderbergh’s film will concentrate on his latter days as a guerrilla fighter in Bolivia. Actor Benjamin Bratt, who is part-Peruvian, is scheduled to play Ente, Mr. Guevara’s right-hand man in the jungle.
Franka Potente, 31, the German star of “The Bourne Identity” and “The Bourne Supremacy,” will play Tania (also known as Tamara Bunke), who helped Mr. Guevara in Bolivia by posing as a folk music collector to infiltrate the country’s high society.
The film’s climax will be Mr. Guevara’s capture in October 1967 after CIA agent Felix Rodriguez was assigned to keep an eye on him while working for the Bolivian army. The National Archives has declassified much of the CIA’s debriefing of the agent after Mr. Guevara was shot in the village of La Higuera.
The CIA papers, with some sensitive details blacked out, revealed that five weeks before the capture, Mr. Rodriguez set up a river-crossing ambush after extracting information about Mr. Guevara from a captured colleague. With wounds to his feet, Mr. Guevara was brought in.
The papers also show the CIA agent received a call on a field telephone and was given two code numbers, 500 for Mr. Guevara and 600 for “execution.” The call was from the Bolivian high command, despite the fact that the CIA apparently wanted Mr. Guevara to be kept alive.
As Mr. Rodriguez talked to Mr. Guevara, two shots were fired nearby, killing two other guerrillas.
According to the documents, “recognizing these shots for what they were, Mr. Guevara blanched when Rodriguez confirmed that he, too, was to be executed, although he later composed himself.”
Mr. Soderbergh’s film is expected to show Mr. Guevara’s execution, using his reported last words: “I know you are here to kill me. Shoot coward. You are only going to kill a man.”