Lawrence of Latin America

Benicio del Toro, the moody and mesmerizing Marlon Brando-ish actor whose work keeps getting deeper and more fascinating, is certain to stir Oscar talk for his performance as Che Guevara.
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If you love epic-styled movies you've certainly seen and loved Lawrence of Arabia, which also means you've been influenced by the great win-lose Lawrence theme. The first half of David Lean's Oscar-winning 1962 film is mostly about climbing the mountain -- the dream, the struggle and the rush of an enigmatic hero fighting and winning an underdog battle. The second half is about tumbling down the other side as the cards -- personal, logistical and political -- turn against him. It's the basic template for almost every ambitious life or grand adventure. Things are always glorious and heart-pumping when you start out with God or fate on your side, but sooner or later these same forces will hand you clouds, complications and downturns. Just ask Barack Obama.

This theme is why I've been so enthused about seeing Steven Soderbergh's Che Guevara films, The Argentine and Guerilla, for over a year now. Because Peter Buchman's two scripts, which I read in March 2007, made it clear that this two-part epic, which Soderbergh has been struggling to finish in time for the Cannes Film Festival and which reportedly runs over four hours, is essentially Lawrence of Latin America. With Benicio del Toro, the moody and mesmerizing Marlon Brando-ish actor whose work keeps getting deeper and more fascinating, all but certain to stir Oscar talk for his performance as Ernesto "Che" Guevara, the legendary Argentine/Cuban firebrand. Even if the Che movies turn out to be problematic, Del Toro can't not whip ass. He's too strange, too gifted. Guevara is too perfect a role for him. All the stars and planets are aligned.

The Che movies will have their world premiere sometime in mid May inside Cannes' Palais du Festival, and as far as I'm concerned their credentials have already been established. Buchman's scripts of The Argentine and Guerilla (both dated 10.4.06) are awfully damn good -- a pair of lean, calloused, you-are-there battle sagas. The more spirited of the two is The Argentine, about Che and Fidel Castro's battle against the forces of Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista from their boat journey from Mexico to Cuba in 1956 until late '58 when they finally won the Cuban revolution. Guerrilla is about how Guevara's revolutionary fervor led him to abandon his Cuban government comforts and embark upon a failed attempt to spark a revolution in Bolivia in late 1966 and '67. It's a story about failure, isolation... listening more and more to the sounds of your own rhetorical spinnings to the exclusion of real-world goblins, and finally being shot to death in a rural schoolhouse by a drunken Bolivian soldier. The former is about heart, tenacity and triumph; Guerrilla is the same fight minus the wind in the sails.

As Christopher Hitchens once wrote, "Che's iconic status was assured because he failed. His story was one of defeat and isolation, and that's why it is so seductive. Had he lived, the myth of Che would have long since died." He added in a July 2004 Guardian piece by Sean O'Hagan that the legend of Che Guevara endures not because of how he lived, but how he died. "He belongs more to the romantic tradition than the revolutionary one," Hitchens said. "To endure as a romantic icon, one must not just die young, but die hopelessly. Che fulfills both criteria. When one thinks of Che as a hero, it is more in terms of Byron than Marx."

I was moved to find and read the Buchman scripts because of a 3.19.07 "Page Six" item that preemptively (and not surprisingly, the political alliances of the New York Post being what they are) attacked the Soderbergh venture. The item vented concerns shared by right-wing anti-Castro Cubans (i.e., the Andy Garcia brigade) that the two films will portray the famed revolutionary in glowing heroic terms without focusing on his brutal, darkly dogmatic side that manifested when Guevara was put in charge of Havana's La Cabana fortress and oversaw the trial and execution of 600 political prisoners.

"To witness such butchery is a trauma that will accompany me to my grave," Jose Vilasuso, a lawyer who worked under Guevara, was quoted as saying. "The walls of that medieval castle received the echoes of the rhythmic footstep of the squad, the clicking of the rifles, the sorry howling of the dying, the macabre silence."

In this respect the Cuban righties weren't that wrong. The Argentine script I read contains no La Cabana depictions -- nothing about what happened in the wake of Castro and Guevara's triumph, and no reflections at all about the kind of country Cuba became under Castro since then. Guerilla alludes to Guevara's frustration with being a top-level Cuban commandante, but no specifics are offered. (Oddly, the draft I read doesn't have any scenes of Guevara visiting New York City in December 1964, which Soderbergh filmed in January 2006. Guerilla will reportedly begin with these scenes.)

Guevara is portrayed by Buchman as an imperfect but admirable fellow. In The Argentine he is complex and dogged, tough and tenacious, plagued by asthma, capable of error but quick to learn. He is more rigid and dogmatic in Guerilla, oblivious to the basic shape of things and yet basically decent and humane and certainly courageous to the last.

And yet the scripts don't feel like a buff-and-polish job. (Not to me anyway.) Guevara is shown as a right guy, but they don't attempt to portray him as emblematic of the Cuban revolution or deliver any sweeping statement about the ultimate goodness of Latin American socialism. They're simply about a group of intelligent, willful, resourceful hombres slugging it out in a pair of tough battles. One in which the people gradually get behind them, the other in which they're largely indifferent. The upper Argentine counter-balanced by the downer Guerilla.

The two scripts are about how living outside the law and fighting a violent revolution feels and smells and chafes on a verite, chapter-by-chapter basis. They're about sweat and guns and hunger -- about friendships, betrayals, exhaustion, shoot-outs and constant trudging through the bush. What it was, how it happened. No heartfelt speeches, no playing to the galleries, no "drama" -- just the straight rough-and-tumble.

Soderbergh shot the mostly-Spanish-language films last year. Guerilla was filmed in Spain and apparently first; The Argentine was shot second in Puerto Rico. Both films were captured with digital Red One cameras. Del Toro's costars are Benjamin Bratt, Demian Bichir (as Fidel Castro), Catalina Sandino Moreno, Julia Ormond (as actress and reporter Lisa Howard), Franka Potente as Guevara ally and cadre Tamara Bunke, Benjamin Benitez as Guevara's comrade in arms Harry "Pombo" Villegas and Lou Diamond Phillips -- Lou Diamond Phillips? -- as the Mario Monje, the Secretary-General of the Communist Party of Bolivia who allegedly betrayed Guevara.

The producer is Laura Bickford, who began working on the project with Del Toro and Soderbergh six or seven years ago, in the wake of their joint Traffic collaboration. The lead financier is the Paris-based Wild Bunch, which hung in through twists and turns that included Terrence Malick, author of a never-published New Yorker article about Guevara's Bolivian debacle as well as a screenplay, committing to direct and then dropping out to make The New World.

With Guerilla shot and completed beforehand, a crazed and frantic editing process is currently engulfing Soderbergh as he struggles to put the finishing touches on The Argentine. There was some genuine doubt on the part of Cannes Film Festival chief Thierry Fremeaux whether the films, which Soderbergh is determined to show as a pair or not at all, would be done in time for the festival. Last month a New York-based distribution chief guy told me he'd heard that the chances of The Argentine being done for the festival are "less than 50%." But Soderbergh hung in there and just made it under the wire.

No U.S. distributor has signed on, in part over concerns about the Spanish-language dialogue (American audiences are notoriously "rural" in their attitudes about subtitles), and in part because it's been determined by Soderbergh that the films have to be seen as a two-part whole with their release to occur within weeks or possibly days of each other. Given the indisputable fact that we are living in the most dumbed-down era of American moviegoing (certainly in terms of the mass audience) since the invention of the movie camera, how many popcorn-munchers are going to be willing, much less eager, to go four hours plus with Che Guevara? Especially given their reluctance to support even Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodrigeuz's Grindhouse, a two-part, three-hour popcorn movie about hot women, zombies and car chases?

A potential distributor confides that "it's a tough deal...looks like a tough deal. Two Spanish-language films, no dubbed English versions, gritty subject matter, possible rancor in some sectors of the U.S. -- the right-wing Cubans in Miami, say -- when the two films open."

The upside, he adds, is you have a likely Best Actor contender in Benicio del Toro's performance, and possibly other award-level attributes, including, obviously, the two pictures themselves for Best Picture. "All you have to do," he says, "is sell it to all those kids who've hung that Che poster on their college bedroom wall." Guevara's iconic poster image has stirred or at least flirted with the hearts and imaginations of hundreds of thousands of iconoclastic college students over the last 40 years.

Variety's John Hopewell reported from the Berlin Film Festival last February that Wild Bunch's "hottest draw -- very possibly the most talked-about film at this year's Berlin festival -- was "Soderbergh's two-pic Che, an action bio of large artistic ambition. Screened in Soderbergh's presence, 10 minutes of excerpts, mainly of first-part Argentine, had buyers talking bullishly about a work with the makings of a modern classic."

The grapevine (which knows nothing) says the most likely U.S. buyer at this stage will, according to rumor, either be the new Warner Bros. "dependent" company that may combine Picturehouse and Warner Independent (with Picturehouse's Bob Berney most likely running the show), Focus Features, Miramax or the Weinstein Co.

Hey, how about presenting the two films as a single, gargantuan Lawrence of Arabia-styled deal with an intermission, running between four or four and a half hours? Initially shown on a reserved-seat basis with a Maurice Jarre-type score with an overture, entre'acte and exit music? You know...for old times' sake?

Jeffrey Wells writes a daily online Hollywood column called Hollywood Elsewhere.

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