In the late 1960s, posters of Ernesto “Che” Guevara were in every North American college dorm, mine included. Alberto Korda’s famed 1960 photo of the Cuban revolutionary leader as rock star had a lot to do with it, as did his execution by Bolivian troops in October 1967, making him an instant martyr and legend.
For some of my acquaintances at university, Che was also an activist role model: They went off to harvest sugar cane in Cuba or, as members of radical groups, agitated for the revolution on American soil. For most it did not end well.
Neither did it for Freddy Maemura Hurtado. This young Japanese-Bolivian fought with Che in Bolivia under the nom de guerre Ernesto Medico and was killed by Bolivian soldiers in August 1967. Junji Sakamoto’s biopic “Ernesto” traces Hurtado’s life from his arrival in Havana in 1962 as an idealistic medical student to his violent end in the jungle.
Earnest, plodding and frankly propagandistic — it was made with the cooperation of the Cuban government — “Ernesto” may seem a strange project choice for a Japanese filmmaker: Save for framing scenes shot in Hiroshima, the film is entirely in Spanish, with a hero unknown to the Japanese audience. But Sakamoto, who tackled similarly politically charged themes in “KT” (2002), “Aegis” (2005) and “Children of the Dark” (2008), had other reasons for making the film than to highlight the glories of a forgotten guerilla fighter.
The story begins in 1959 with Che (Juan Miguel Valero Acosta) arriving in Japan for trade talks with the Japanese government. On the spur of the moment, he decides to go to Hiroshima and an eager Japanese reporter (Kento Nagayama) covers Che’s visit to the Atomic Dome and Peace Museum. “America made you suffer like this. Why aren’t you angry at them?” Che asks the flummoxed journalist.
For Hurtado (Joe Odagiri), the answer is obvious. When he arrives in Havana he is already smoldering with a revolutionary ardor that an encounter with the charismatic Che ignites into flames. During the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, when nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union becomes terrifyingly possible, Hurtado enthusiastically mans an anti-aircraft gun as his fellow foreign students flee for home. But when the crisis ends with what Hurtado regards as Soviet capitulation, he is enraged.
A scene of Che somberly remembering a Peace Museum diorama of a devastated Hiroshima as he plans to defend Cuba against American attack reinforces the narrative link between the film’s anti-nuke opening and its portrayal of Che and Hurtado as valiant opponents of American aggression.
Frankly, I am grateful Hurtado’s hoped-for blow against American imperialism never occurred. Otherwise the nuclear genie might have escaped its bottle — and I and millions of others might now be radiated dust.
The film is faithful to the outlines of Hurtado’s story, to the detriment of its drama. His acquaintance with Che remains remote, if one-sidedly worshipful, while his brief period as an anti-government guerilla in Bolivia is short on heroics.
As we see in documentary scenes, Hurtado and Che live on in the memories of their now aged comrades as revolutionary exemplars. “Ernesto,” however, unintentionally illustrates why political movies are so often poor guides to actual politics. Tragic revolutionaries make cool heroes, but when nuclear missiles are about to fly, give me compromising politicians any day.