A controversial new biopic about Cuban revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara is awakening old passions and provoking vigorous defenses and denunciations of the iconic revolutionary and - in the case of an interview with The Washington Times - a dramatic walkout.
“I’m getting uncomfortable,” Benicio del Toro said after fielding a question about his new movie’s portrayal of the Bolivian and Cuban revolutions. “I’m done. I’m done, I hope you write whatever you want. I don’t give a damn.”
With that, the Oscar-winning actor walked away, abruptly terminating an interview conducted late last week to discuss director Steven Soderbergh’s “Che.”
Heated discussion has inevitably followed this almost 4 1/2-hour film’s portrayal of the revered and reviled figure who sought to spread armed insurrection throughout Latin America and became a romanticized icon of rebellion in the process.
Yet its star seems ill at ease in the hot seat.
Hunched over a plate of guacamole in the backroom of gourmet Mexican restaurant Oyamel in the District, Mr. del Toro seemed excited to discuss the picture, which he co-produced with Mr. Soderbergh and Laura Bickford. Though the movie has received mixed critical reception, Mr. del Toro won top acting honors at Cannes this year. In his acceptance speech, he dedicated the award to Guevara.
The film was screened in Cuba, to much applause.
“Del Toro is spectacular in the role of Che, not only in his physical resemblance but also in his brilliant interpretation,” wrote Granma, the official newspaper of the Cuban Communist Party. “After more than five hours of screening, the Cuban public gave its endorsement with a strong ovation.”
“Not knowing much about the history of Cuba, the history of Che, not being taught anything about it,” Mr. del Toro says of his motivation for helping to bring the picture to fruition. “The image that I have or what has been told to me about this character is that he’s kind of a cowboy - a bloodthirsty cowboy.”
In doing research for the picture, Mr. del Toro was drawn to the writings of Guevara. “First, you start with what he wrote. What Che Guevara wrote. And he was a great writer, he wrote for years, so you start with that,” he said.
Given the film’s tenor, however - Guevara is shown telling a reporter that the most important thing for a revolutionary to have is “el amor,” love - it’s fair to ask to which parts of the Guevara bibliography the producer was exposed.
“He was a man full of hatred,” said Armando Valladares, the Cuban dissident imprisoned by the revolutionary regime in 1960. Named a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International, Mr. Valladares is the author of “Against All Hope: A Memoir of Life in Castro’s Gulag” and a board member of the Human Rights Foundation. Speaking through Glenda Aldana, a translator who works for the foundation, Mr. Valladares points to Guevara’s writings as proof.
In his “Message to the Tricontinental,” Guevara espoused “hatred as an element of struggle; unbending hatred for the enemy, which pushes a human being beyond his natural limitations, making him into an effective, violent, selective, and cold-blooded killing machine.”
“He took joy in killing counterrevolutionaries and was one of the most hard-edged, most Stalinist, pro-Soviet communists of the whole leadership,” said Ronald Radosh, a Hudson Institute adjunct fellow and author of “Commies: A Journey Through the Old Left, the New Left and the Leftover Left.”
Mr. Soderbergh defended his film’s perspective in an interview with The Washington Post at the Toronto International Film Festival.
“I’ve had people ask me: ‘How can you make a movie about a murderer? A terrorist?’” he said. “What they don’t understand is that I’m in support of everyone who appears on screen. I have to be. I take the position of everyone who’s on screen. I’m not judging them one way or another.”
At the same time, Mr. Soderbergh seems to harbor few illusions about just who Guevara was.
“I don’t know that there’s any place for a person like me in the society that he was trying to make,” the director said. “I’m the poster child for a lot of the [stuff] that he was trying to eradicate.”
Mr. del Toro doesn’t deny that Guevara’s persona had some darker aspects. “We have to omit a lot of stuff about his life,” he said, “but we’re not omitting the fact that he’s for capital punishment, which is the essence of that.”
In the movie, Guevara is shown executing a man. But the man is executed for raping a child, not for being disloyal to the cause of revolution. Troops are offered a chance to desert, and get nothing more than a scolding for their cowardice.
Mr. Valladares is less convinced of Guevara’s dedication to due process.
“Che Guevara executed dozens and dozens of people who never once stood trial and were never declared guilty,” he said. “In his own words, he said the following: ‘At the smallest of doubt we must execute.’ And that’s what he did at the Sierra Maestra and the prison of Las Cabanas.”
“They didn’t do it blindly; they had trials,” Mr. del Toro said. “They found them guilty, and they executed them - that’s capital punishment.”
But Mr. Radosh said it wasn’t as simple as that.
“Huber Matos was guilty of nothing,” he said. Mr. Matos was a commandant under Fidel Castro, one of the revolutionary’s earliest followers and a fervent enemy of the Batista regime. But he was no communist, and when he saw where the country was headed, he wanted out.
“He didn’t even want to go into opposition,” said Mr. Radosh. “He simply said, ‘I don’t like the direction of the government, I don’t want to be part of the government, I’ll voluntarily relinquish my command.’ He was convicted of treason, and after a sham trial that Fidel presided over, was sent to prison for a 25- to 30-year sentence.”
Guevara was instrumental in the creation of Cuba’s forced labor camps, which were used to imprison and extract work from those who had committed no crimes but were thought to be insufficiently revolutionary.
The policy of extrajudicial imprisonment that Guevara favored would later expand to include political activists of all stripes, musicians, artists, homosexuals and others deemed to be dangerous to the maintenance of the Stalinist regime.
Mr. del Toro grew agitated when these prisons were described as “concentration camps,” a phrase that Mr. Valladares freely employs.
“I’m a survivor of those concentration camps. And I stand firm by my belief that they were concentration camps,” he said. “The forced labor camps where I also worked, where dozens and dozens of political prisoners were murdered, where thousands were tortured, that’s something that even the most ardent believers in Castro´s tyranny can’t deny.”
Critics of “Che” have suggested that the film whitewashes its protagonist’s legacy and that it’s impossible to understand the man by glorifying his more romantic aspects while ignoring his darker side.
“We can’t cover it all,” Mr. del Toro said. “You can make your own movie. You know? You can make your own movie. And let’s see. Do the research.”
Mr. Valladares is afraid that Mr. del Toro and Mr. Soderbergh’s film will make people forget the reality that was Che Guevara’s life.
“Benicio del Toro is just one of the many accomplices of the Cuban tyranny,” he said. “All the murderers of people have had accomplices and people who made excuses for them. Stalin had them, Hitler had them, Pinochet had them, all the dictators have had apologists for them. Che Guevara and Fidel Castro also had them.”