"You Are One of Those Dead People Who Never Die" is a line of graffiti scrawled on the small building in Vallegrande, Bolivia, where the body of Che Guevara was displayed to the world on Oct. 10, 1967. Those words have never been truer than they are now.
Venerated as just about a secular saint in Cuba, his face known around the world from its place on everything from T-shirts to Swatch watches, Guevera is the subject of a massive new biography, "Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life" by Jon Lee Anderson, as well as a 1994 documentary just opening here, "Ernesto Che Guevara: The Bolivian Diary." (Anderson will introduce the film at its 7:30 screening at the Nuart tonight.)
Directed by Swiss filmmaker Richard Dindo, "The Bolivian Diary" is a rigorous, somber film that ends up being both moving and poetic. It offers minimal background on Guevara or analysis of his actions, instead concentrating on the chronology of the 11 months he spent as a guerrilla leader in that South American country before his capture and execution by government forces assisted by the United States.
The film's first image is the famous news photograph of the Bolivian military exhibiting Guevara's corpse, but "Diary" also provides other visuals, taken from news archives and private sources, that are less familiar. We see the Cuban revolutionary in the convincing disguise he used to get from Havana to Frankfurt to La Paz, how he looked as a captive and photographs of his corpse on the floor of the schoolroom in La Higuera where he was shot.
An interview with a woman (unidentified, as are all of Dindo's subjects) who as a young girl in La Higuera was one of the last to speak to Guevara points up the essence of his appeal. She asked the captive how someone of his intelligence had ended up like this and he replied, "It's for my ideals. I do all I can so your future will be better."
This image of Che as the revolutionary whose passion for equality never flagged is at the heart of "The Bolivian Diary." The film introduces Guevara as one of the leaders of Cuba, a minister in Castro's government dedicated to the daunting task of establishing a socialist society and creating a new socialist man.
Guevara's public criticism of the Soviet Union led to his resignation in 1965, and, after some time spent in military activity in what is now Zaire, he arrived in Bolivia intent on furthering what he called "this new revolutionary adventure." He ended up in one of the country's most inaccessible areas with 50 men, including 16 experienced Cuban fighters, under his command.
During his stopover in Frankfurt, Guevara had purchased a German datebook and the diary he kept in it is the spine of Dindo's film. Laconic, unsentimental, never hiding from the truth, Guevara is an involving diarist, unafraid to confess to having had "a black day" or to calling the loss of one of his men via drowning "our baptism of death in an absurd manner."
With Guevera's words (read by Richard Kramer) forming a large part of the soundtrack, "The Bolivian Diary" retraces the man's path through the countryside, showing us the small towns he passed through, even the clearings in the bush he and his men camped in.
Dindo has also found and interviewed a variety of invariably somber eyewitnesses to Guevera's via dolorosa, including former comrades-in-arms, conscripted Bolivian soldiers who fought against him and the curious peasants he met along the way.
While his commitment to revolutionary ideology never wavered, Guevara and his men faced mounting troubles. The Bolivian Communist Party considered him a rival and refused cooperation, battles with U.S.-trained soldiers gradually depleted his force and the local people were indifferent, causing him to at one point complain, "We are fighting for the poor, for the humble people, but they have never helped us."
Though speculation outside the scope of the physical diary runs contrary to Dindo's aesthetic, other sources have included other problems: No rebel could speak the local Guarini dialect; the tall, bearded Cubans were physically different from the local people; and the unanswerable question, formulated by Thomas H. Lipscomb, editor of the diaries, "Did Castro intentionally leave Guevara to die in Bolivia?"
Whether the end was intentional or not, the scenario of an increasingly weakened Guevara, an overmatched idealist hampered by serious asthma in addition to everything else, trying to live out his principles in increasingly precarious situations, is a compelling and increasingly dramatic one.
"I am now 39," Guevara wrote on June 3, "and I am relentlessly approaching the age when I must think about my future as a guerrilla. But for now, this is what I am." As this engrossing film demonstrates, this is also how he will be thought of for some time to come.
* Unrated. Times guidelines: still photographs and film of Guevara's corpse.
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'Ernesto Che Guevara:
The Bolivian Diary'
A Cine-Manufacture, Les Films d'Ici production, released by International Film Circuit Inc. Director Richard Dindo. Voices Judith Burnett, Robert Kramer. Screenplay Richard Dindo. Cinematographer Pio Corradi. Editors Richard Dindo, Georg Janett, Catherine Poitevin. Sound Jurg Hassler, Andreas Sigg, Jean-Pierre Bordiau. Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes.
* Playing at the Nuart, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 478-6379.