Mystery of History 

Both Che and Waltz with Bashir tackle complex historical subjects and challenge their audiences. But neither makes good mythology.

For open-minded, politically engaged North Americans, the most enigmatic trouble spot in the world is not Iraq. Nor is it Iran, North Korea, the Central Asian borderlands of the old Soviet Union, Afghanistan, or Pakistan. It isn't Chile or Argentina, Zimbabwe, Somalia, the Palestinian homeland, or even Jerusalem. It's Cuba.

Almost every foreign blunder the US has made in the past hundred years — from the age of manifest destiny to the quickie invasions, "domino effect" misadventures, imperial "shock and awe," etc. — can be seen in the microcosm of that former Spanish colony "only ninety miles away." So near and yet so far.

Exactly fifty years ago, the Cuban revolution led by Fidel Castro and the strikingly photogenic Argentine physician-turned-revolutionary, Ernesto "Che" Guevara, overthrew that country's US-backed dictatorship (sound familiar?) and briefly captured the imagination and admiration of ordinary Americans. Castro made the cover of Time magazine. Then it was discovered that he and his crew were leftists bent on righting a few of Cuba's wrongs and spanking the yanquis who had been pillaging the landscape ever since they took it away from the Spaniards. Commies! Since then, Havana has been the constant pebble in Washington's shoe and the most fascinating place on the planet. No one in the states knew anything about it except that it was off-limits. Meanwhile, every student bookstore and palenque from Berkeley to Berlin to Cebu has done a brisk business in Che T-shirts and wall posters.

Cut to 2009 and Steven Soderbergh's similarly puzzling two-part "pocket epic," Che. Puzzling, because despite a grandiose and detailed performance by Benicio Del Toro as Che and the skills of director Soderbergh, the four-hour, thirty-two-minute chronicle doesn't throw much of a lifeline to the disinterested but curious observer. It's definitely not for beginners, and the film does little to arouse sympathy for its admittedly complex subject. We may find the figure of Che fascinating, but is he hypnotic or inspiring? Not really.

Rather than fall back on putatively hackneyed narrative devices for introducing us to characters' motives and explaining historical context, Soderbergh and screenwriter Peter Buchman (Jurassic Park III, Eragon), working from Guevara's journals, choose to drop us into Che's life at a point well north of The Motorcycle Diaries, the time in which the idealistic Guevera meets and conspires with Fidel Castro (played by Demián Bichir) in Mexico City, 1955. From then on, we're at ground level in Cuba's Sierra Maestra and on the long and bloody road to Havana, soaking up the hardship.

Along the march route, Che's comrades establish themselves hastily: the bearded joker Camilo Cienfuegos (Santiago Cabrera), Roberto "Vaquerito" Rodríguez (Unax Ugalde), and Aleida March, Che's brief love interest (Catalina Sandino Moreno). Soderbergh dispenses with the corny "against the background of" romance stuff — there's no time, what with arranging medical checkups for liberated peasants, taxing landowners, executing renegades, and a couple of short, sharp combat scenes against Batista's army. The Battle of Santa Clara is particularly exciting. As Che puts it: "When people hate the government, it's not very hard to take a town." Soderbergh knows how to film a firefight: long shots, very few cutaways, no trick photography.

To provide some perspective in the midst of the revolution, Soderbergh intercuts a flash-forward of the Cuban delegation's 1964 trip to the United Nations in New York, and sets up a broadcast journalist (Julia Ormond) to ask Castro and Guevara what it all means. Che's UN speech, when he wins over other Latinoamericanos, is a rousing call to arms. Suddenly, it dawns on us that this might have made a better documentary than a narrative. Actor Del Toro has portrayed a mind-boggling array of characters in challenging, provocative films (The Indian Runner, Basquiat, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Traffic, 21 Grams, etc.), but the structure of Che: Part One defeats him. The revolution is bigger than the man himself — we're never allowed to forget that. The myth somehow deserves better.

Part Two is a different story. Where Part One builds to a relatively satisfying crescendo — minus a triumphal march into Havana — Part Two shows the flip side of world revolution, as Guevara attempts to export a war of national liberation to Bolivia with disastrous results. "The revolution was not popular," it failed, and he died. After the exhilaration of Part One, the mood of Part Two seems somber, almost funereal, but it's integral to the story — after all, it's what really happened — and as natural as night following day. Atheists may scoff, but there's definitely a Christ-like quality to the way Soderbergh depicts Che's martyrdom at the hands of the Bolivian military oligarchy and the CIA. His final revolution was doomed but he was determined to play it to the end, come what may. His principles demanded it, of course, but such an act of defiant self-sacrifice seems to have been a part of his nature. At least it's comforting to believe so. Che's lasting achievement was to provide hope where there was none.

The cinematic mysteries of history continue in filmmaker Ari Folman's vividly etched Waltz with Bashir, which tries to make sense of the chaotic horrors of Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon with beautifully animated, graphic-novel-style vignettes from that conflict. The effect is brilliant at times, but, if Che is guilty of sacrificing deep personal characterization to paint a broad canvas of historical "sweep," Waltz with Bashir achieves the opposite. Purposely fuzzy on the context, writer-director Folman's episodic, first-person narratives (he collected accounts from fellow veterans of the Lebanon war) work better as a series of emotional graphic scenes than as documentary history.

A pack of vicious dogs rampages through a town. A soldier finds refuge on the belly of a gigantic woman floating in the sea, his own "Love Boat." A squad of Israeli troops wades ashore in Lebanon like naked, armed vacationers. The eerie yellow light only intensifies the strangeness. The catastrophe at the end of the tunnel is the infamous Sabra and Shatila massacre of Palestinian refugees by Christian Phalangist soldiers avenging the bombing death of their leader, Bashir Gemayel — hence the title.

Are Folman's interview subjects embroidering the truth? Is Waltz with Bashir a factual account of that shameful war? We might as well question the motives of all war movies. The bitter taste lingers after the gorgeous animated images fade — that's the skeptical payoff of this provocative entertainment, a film to stand alongside the recent Persepolis and Fear(s) of the Dark as landmarks in the development of animated films on adult subjects.

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