Che joins Gandhi, Patton in grand biopic tradition

Film

October 10, 2004|By Patrick Goldstein

HOLLYWOOD -- Having played characters such as the Sundance Kid and Bob Woodward, Robert Redford knows what it's like to evoke real life on film. But nothing quite prepared him for the stomach-churning experience of screening The Motorcycle Diaries, the new film based on Che Guevara's youthful road trip across South America, for Guevara's widow, Aleida March, her family and Albert Granado, now 82, who was Guevara's companion on most of the trek.

When Redford acquired the rights to Guevara's book about his journey of discovery long after the Cuban revolutionary's death, he promised Guevara's widow a first look at the finished movie. So days after the Walter Salles-directed film made its debut at the Sundance Film Festival in January, Redford took a print to Havana for a family viewing. "I must've lost 5 pounds during the screening," Redford said. "The widow is a very tough bird. She's very protective of her husband's legacy, and she's very much the Marxist, so I was sweating bullets."

Redford, an executive producer on the movie, was also worried about a certain other mythic Cuban figure's reaction. Although Fidel Castro didn't show up at the screening, just as Redford was leaving town, the dictator came to visit him at the Hotel Nacional. "He asked me about the weather in Utah and about baseball and all sorts of things," Redford explained. "But Fidel is a shrewd guy -- he didn't want to talk about the movie. He said he'd see it eventually."

Is it any wonder Castro seemed wary about watching the coming-of-age story of his old comrade in The Motorcycle Diaries? If you were a once-fearless social revolutionary who'd ended up just as much of a coldblooded dictator as the tyrant you'd overthrown 45 years ago, imagine how you'd feel about the world seeing a film celebrating the youthful idealism of your old sidekick, who had the good fortune to die young and leave a heroic corpse. Put it this way: No one goes around wearing T-shirts with Fidel's picture on them. That honor is reserved for Che, the James Dean of Marxist firebrands, who died an outlaw in Bolivia before he had to lock any literary dissidents away in a cramped prison cell.

Like sculptor's clay

As the media uproars over The Hurricane and A Beautiful Mind attest, it's often hard to say who takes more of a beating from biopics, the real-life characters or the filmmakers. Nonetheless, from the earliest days of silent film, Hollywood has had an enduring fascination with stories about real-life characters. Every year, particularly as we approach awards season, biographical films begin to pile up like presents under a Christmas tree.

A look back into Hollywood history shows a host of Oscar winners based, often quite loosely, on real personages, from Lawrence of Arabia and Patton to Gandhi and Schindler's List.

This year's crop of award contenders includes such biopics as Aviator (Martin Scorsese's take on Howard Hughes), Oliver Stone's Alexander (as in "the Great"), Finding Neverland (with Johnny Depp as Peter Pan creator J.M. Barrie), Kinsey (about sex researcher Alfred Kinsey), Ray (with Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles) and Motorcycle Diaries, starring Gael Garcia Bernal as Guevara and Rodrigo de la Serna as Granado.

Filmmakers are attracted to historical characters because they provide them with material that is not only mythic and inspiring but also tangible, the equivalent of a sculptor's hunk of clay. If a screenwriter had created a character like Erin Brockovich or The Insider's tobacco whistle-blower Jeffrey Wigand, critics would have hooted them out of the theater -- but because their heroics were rooted in reality, they were accepted as plausible characters.

"As a storyteller, you're always dealing with invented tales, whereas if you deal with history, you get a sense of reality and sources you can rely on," explains Olivier Hirschbiegel, director of Downfall, the much-debated new German film about the last days of Adolf Hitler. "But more importantly, you feel the events have a weight to them, because history matters."

Movies vs. reality

If Salles' film romanticizes anything, it is not Guevara himself, but youthful idealism. It shows a privileged young man whose social consciousness is awakened by exposure to suffering and injustice, a transformation strikingly similar to what white college students in the 1960s underwent during the civil rights movement in the American South.

Movies can't help but mythologize history -- cinema reinvents everything it beholds, sometimes with destructive results, as in The Birth of a Nation, sometimes with heartfelt inspiration, as with films like Malcolm X or The Pianist.

Today, Che is a black-bereted poster-boy for fuzzy revolutionary ideals. Perhaps tomorrow, inspired by Diaries' thoughtful portrait, we'll see him in a less one-dimensional light. When Salles took Granado with him to Cannes this spring, Che's old friend was asked the inevitable question: What would his long-dead pal think about seeing his image on T-shirts and baby clothes at protest rallies and fashion shows?

As Salles tells it: "Alberto thought about it and finally said, 'Knowing my friend as well as I do, he would be infuriated by countries invading other countries, by poverty and by drugs and the commercialization of guns and weapons. I'm not so sure he'd be infuriated by the T-shirts.' "

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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