“Ernesto,” a fictionalized account of a true story, opens in Tokyo, where a team of Cubans headed by Ernesto Che Guevara, is en route to confer with the Japanese Ministry of Trade. Before the team arrives, we see Japanese economists meeting with the Minister of Trade. He admits that the upcoming meeting with the Cubans will amount to little more than window dressing; the U.S. government has already intervened to threaten Japan with sanctions, should it engage in trade relations with Cuba. The Minister of Trade spends fifteen minutes with the Cuban delegation. The Governor, on the other hand, leads the Cubans on an hour-long tour of the site of the August 6, 1945 Hiroshima nuclear bombing, carried out by the United States, and a museum erected to commemorate it. A cub reporter follows the Cubans around, photographing them, and asking questions of Guevara.
Guevara, angered by the brushoff from the Ministry of Trade, hasn’t used his camera during the trip, but when he observes an elderly man laying flowers at the commemorative site, he begins to take photos. You get the sense that he sees the reprehensible act of destruction through the eyes of the elderly man, he instantly finds himself empathically identifying with the horror the Japanese suffered at the hands of the United States. He asks the young reporter, “Why aren’t the Japanese angry at the United States?” The question stays on the mind of the reporter as he makes his way home on a streetcar, and one can see that Guevara has made a lasting impression on the young man.
The next scene is set in Havana in 1962. A group of students, the majority of them from poor barrios or agricultural regions in Bolivia, have come to study medicine in Cuba. A condition for receiving their education at no charge is that they pledge to spearhead delivery of equal medical services to the poor when they become doctors. Among them are one or two who are more privileged than the others, and cynical about the results of, and prospects for the Cuban revolution. That cynicism extends to the revolution’s implications for countries such as theirs, ruled by brutal dictators who enrich themselves on the backs of poor peasants and workers.
Freddy Maemura Hurtado, played by Japanese film star Joe Odagiri, is a Bolivian of partly Japanese extraction. He quickly goes to the head of the class, acknowledged by his classmates as exemplary in his comportment and seriousness. Throughout the film you hear them calling out to him for help with their assignments, or greeting him many times in the course of a day.
After some time has passed, Freddy learns that one of the two cynics in his group has made a young woman pregnant, and walked away from taking any responsibility for the child. Once Freddy has qualified to work as an intern and starts receiving pay for his work, he begins to help the young pregnant woman with her expenses, and they become friends, though not lovers. Freddy has what seem like chance encounters with both Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, and a brief but meaningful conversation with Guevara, during which he asks Che’s advice about what to do with his life. Che tells him that he, Che, cannot tell him what to do, but that a time will come when his heart will let him know the answer. After observing the students at work, Fidel invites Freddy and his classmates to join him in a game of basketball.
Shortly after Freddy begins his internship, he reads that the regime in Bolivia has launched a massive attack against agricultural workers and the coal miners there, and convinces another classmate that they should quit their medical studies and return home to fight. They train for guerrilla warfare, and Che assigns Freddy the nom de guerre of “Ernesto.” He tells Freddy that he reminds Che of his younger self, when he was a medical student contemplating a different path in life as a revolutionary. It’s a compliment that would have turned anyone’s head, but Freddy receives it with his customary humility. In the meantime, the love and respect that has developed between him and the young woman can no longer be ignored. Freddy shares his secret plan with her and brings her child a doll on the girl’s birthday, promising more dolls for future birthdays. It is clear that he intends to return and make a life in Cuba with the woman and her daughter when he finishes his stint in Bolivia, so that he can also resume and complete his medical education. The scene then shifts to Bolivia where Freddy, now Ernesto, joins his assigned unit in the jungle and fights valiantly.
The film’s director chooses a very straightforward and simple exposition, unencumbered by conceits, or gratuitous mood-setting tropes. Budget constraints may have been a factor, but it feels like the director consciously pared visual cues to a minimum, to allow the complexity of mixed emotions and pressures felt by impoverished students presented with opportunities fraught with conflicting personal and social pressures, to enunciate themselves clearly. Given the ambiguities that the students’ circumstances invite, the directions they take, implied by the choices they make, surface unambiguously. Against the evening shadows of palm trees and the thrum of a society under construction, we see hard choices arrayed in gross relief that those of us in the so-called “developed” world have yet to be confronted with.
A weakness in the film, is that once we are introduced to the Tokyo reporter who is inspired by Guevara’s words, we expect to see him act in a way that conforms to his new-found outlook. When the next scene opens, and we meet Freddy, who looks to be part Japanese, we are waiting for some connection to link the two Japanese men. That never happens. Given the turn the plot takes, there is no overt reason for them to meet, but waiting for a bridge between the two nationalities, incurs a subliminal placing of the plot on hold. He will eventually show up, but as a bookend figure at the close of the film. Having waited for him for so long, we have now forgotten him, and so the bookend arrives more as an afterthought, appended to quench our curiosity about what became of him. The result is a finale that comes off more mawkish than satisfying. In all other respects, “Ernesto” is a complete meal redolent of the many flavors and textures that abounded in the revolution’s early years, plated expertly by a seasoned chef, with a sharp yet sensitive eye for presentation.