ERNESTO Guevara de la Serna (1928-1967), the mythical Che, is such a fascinating historical figure that there have been numerous filmmakers who have wanted to explore his intense life, either through documentaries or feature-length films.
Below we make reference to ten examples from the extensive filmography seeking to portray this man/legend, one of the most important Latin American figures of the twentieth century.
In October 1967, just a few days after the news of Che’s assassination, an impressive and solemn tribute was held in Havana’s Plaza de la Revolución. Documentary filmmaker Santiago Álvarez, recognized for his audiovisual work, and director of the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry’s (ICAIC) newsreels, was asked to put together, in the space of just 48 hours, a film to be screened at the gathering.
The result was Hasta la victoria siempre (Forever Toward Victory), one of his most acclaimed works, which despite being made with the very limited footage and photographs available to him, constituted a moving tribute to Che.
To support his theory of “urgent cinema,” Santiago Álvarez had proclaimed that with two photos, a moviola and some music, one could make a film. And he proved it.
With respect to the soundtrack for Hasta la victoria siempre, he took a fragment of Exotic Suite of the Americas, by Dámaso Pérez Prado (1917-1989), and turned it into an emblematic piece, evocative of the figure of the Heroic Guerrilla.
Something similar would happen with the iconic photo of Che taken by the Cuban Alberto Korda, during the funerals of the victims of the attack on the La Coubre ship, in 1960.
The 15-minute documentary Una foto recorre el mundo (A Photograph Travels the World), released in 1981, by Pedro Chaskel - one of the main precursors of the so-called New Chilean Cinema (1955-1973) movement - reveals the story behind one of the most famous photographs of the 20th century, reproduced hundreds of thousands of times in different formats, through an interview with Korda himself.
Another great of Latin American cinema, Argentine Fernando Birri, also resorted to the interview format to make Mi hijo el Che - Un retrato de familia de don Ernesto Guevara (My Son Che: A Family Portrait by Don Ernesto Guevara), in 1985.
Birri, in a long and enjoyable dialogue with Che’s father, manages to piece together a profile through his memories and the testimonies of other relatives.
Three decades after his assassination in Bolivia, Argentine Juan Carlos Desanzo produced a new documentary, Hasta la victoria siempre/Che, which focuses on Ernesto Guevara as a boy, his childhood in Cordoba, his travels across Latin America, his encounter with Fidel Castro Ruz, and the beginning of his revolutionary activity in Cuba, culminating with the triumph of the Cuban Revolution in 1959. Beginning with the last day of Che’s life, Desanzo looks back on his entire existence.
Di buen día a papá (Say Good Morning to Dad) is a curious film, made by the Bolivian Fernando Vargas in 2005. Its main appeal is to approach the views of the inhabitants of the Bolivian region of Valle Grande, where Ernesto Che Guevara is revered like a saint. The film tells the story of three generations from this area, their coexistence with the mythology that surrounds the figure of Che, and how they lead a normal life in such a symbolic setting to the peoples of Latin America.
Cuban actress Isabel Santos, who has received more than ten national and international awards since first starring in the film Se permuta by Juan Carlos Tabío in 1983, came up with the idea of getting behind the camera precisely when participating in Bolivia as part of the cast of Vargas’ film.
Thus emerged a project to make a film about Che, which resulted in the 2006 documentary San Ernesto nace en La Higuera (Saint Ernesto was born in La Higuera), where she also collected the impressions and memories of locals regarding the event around which several legends have arisen, such as that of the mystical power of Guevara de la Serna.
Santos and co-director and photographer Rafael Solís, who both acted as screenwriters, filmed in Cuba and the Bolivian town of La Higuera, where Che was assassinated. They undertook dozens of interviews that rescued the thoughts and feelings of residents of the region of Valle Grande, La Higuera and Pucará. The documentary also features Bolivian journalist and Senator, Antonio Peredo, human rights activist Loyola Guzman and the current President of Bolivia, Evo Morales.
Che, un hombre Nuevo (Che: A New Man) is another noteworthy documentary, offering an extensive and rigorous journey through the life of the mythical Argentine-Cuban revolutionary, made in 2009 by Argentine Tristan Bauer.
Screenwriters Bauer and Cristina Scaglione assumed the role of researchers and contributed new data which, added to that already forming part of his basic biography, offered a more complete account of Che Guevara.
The film makes maximum use of documentary resources and included new archive material provided by Aleida March, Che’s widow, such as photos, footage, sound recordings, photographs, letters and handwritten correspondence by Guevara de la Serna. Another important contribution were the military archives of Bolivia, access to which was provided by President Evo Morales.
With a running time of over two hours, Bauer first takes the viewer through Argentina and then the rest of Latin America, telling the story of Che’s decisive participation in the Cuban Revolution, his diplomatic travels, his failed experience in the Congo, and the tragic outcome in Bolivia.
There is a rather unanimous view, a rare thing among critics, that the 2004 film Diarios de motocicleta (The Motorcycle Diaries), directed by Brazilian Walter Salles, is the best fiction film about Che Guevara. It is outstanding in all technical and artistic aspects, including the lead performances, with Gael García Bernal as Che, and Rodrigo De la Serna as his travel companion Alberto Granados.
But what to a large extent explains the film’s success was choosing to focus on a deeply significant stretch in the life of the young medical student, Ernesto Guevara de la Serna: that renowned motorcycle trip through a colorful and torn South America. The result was a highly engaging story, given its road movie character.
Running over more than two hours, the film takes us back to 1952, when the 23 year old medical student, known to his friends as Fuser, and the 29 year old biochemist Alberto Granados, set off on a four-month, 8,000 kilometer journey across South America.
The film has two distinct parts; the first is more optimistic, with great landscapes and moments of comedy and joy; while the second gives way to reflection, the inequalities between different countries and peoples, injustice, poverty and leprosy.
The closing credits are a magnificent complement, featuring real photographs taken by the two during their trip, and one can’t help but appreciate the song by Uruguayan composer Jorge Drexler, “Al otro lado del río,” which received the Oscar for Best Original Song. At the Academy Awards ceremony it was performed by Antonio Banderas and Carlos Santana, however, on taking to the stage to collect the trophy, Drexler sang the song a capella for 30 seconds instead of giving an acceptance speech.
Four years later came the two-part biopic Che by Steven Soderbergh, with part one titled The Argentine and part two Guerrilla, based on two of Che’s writings: Pasajes de la Guerra Revolucionaria (Passages of the Revolutionary War) and El Diario del Che en Bolivia (The Bolivian Diary of Ernesto Che Guevara).
The first film chronicles the events that led to the fall of the dictatorial regime of General Fulgencio Batista and the beginning of the Cuban Revolution, while the second focuses on Che’s revolutionary activities outside Cuba, with a recreation of his historic speech at the UN and his campaign in the Bolivian jungle.
It premiered as a single film on May 21, 2008, at the Cannes Film Festival, with a running time of about four hours. Benicio Del Toro won the Palme d'Or for Best Actor in his role as Che.
This is not a conventional biopic. It does not tell the whole life story of Che, but rather narrates concrete periods, between Mexico 1957 and the triumph of the Revolution in January of 1959, with constant flashbacks and also flashforwards (such as his trip in 1964 to appear before the United Nations).
The film is much more rounded along with the second part, although in it Soderbergh cuts down on the action, depicting the day to day life of the guerrilla forces in the mountains of Bolivia, as recalled in Che’s diary.
Curiously, there is little sense of epic in this movie. Even the scene of Che’s death, the most anticipated moment of the film, hardly causes a commotion, as if Soderbergh and Del Toro wanted to avoid making a spectacle of his execution.
Ernesto Che Guevara is a fascinating figure. With his own life he made the best of films, combining literature, poetry and action. Benicio del Toro confessed that “It is impossible to make a film about Che, but we tried.”
Other filmmakers have also aspired to bring his story to the big screen. This has never been fully achieved. There still remains so much more to say about this much-visited and yet elusive figure.