Che: Part One and Two
Epic biopic more bluntly informative than passionately provocative
Che: Part One and Two
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Cast: Benicio Del Toro, Demián Bichir, Catalina Sandino Moreno
Writer/producer/cinematographer/director Steven Soderbergh has had his name attached to enough big-ticket blockbusters (Out Of Sight, Erin Brockovich, Traffic, Ocean’s Eleven) to be mistaken for a mainstream Hollywood filmmaker. He isn’t really. Dig through his résumé in full and you’ll find plenty of proof that—despite palling around with George Clooney and Julia Roberts—his heart lies in doggedly uncommercial independent cinema. For evidence, put Kafka, King of the Hill, Underneath, Schizopolis and 2005’s self-distributed Bubble in your Netflix queue—because you probably aren’t going to find them at your local Blockbuster.
This year finds Soderbergh putting his non-mainstream muscle behind a massive four-and-a-half-hour biopic of Argentine-born revolutionary and conveniently copyright-free T-shirt icon Ernesto “Che” Guevara (embodied on screen by Oscar-winning actor Benicio Del Toro). In certain markets, Che is being released in two separate parts. Here in Albuquerque, we get the full-on 269-minute “festival” version (which comes equipped with an intermission).
The film (or films, depending on how you choose to look at it), is based on Guevara’s personal diaries and unfolds in two broad chapters. The first, arguably more dynamic, part could be subtitled How I Won the Revolution. It chronicles Guevara’s all-star Socialist team-up with Fidel Castro to overthrow Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista in the late ’50s. Soderbergh employs a number of film looks and shooting styles to bounce around in time. Most of the film is split between Guevara and Castro’s successful rebellion and a reflective mid-’60s interview Guevara gave to a New York journalist. The ‘60s-set scenes are lensed in a grainy black-and-white, while the ’50s-set scenes are done in gritty, color-saturated video. (Soderbergh shot the entire film on the trendy new Red One HD digital camera.)
Though it’s based on Guevara’s own recounting of the story, Che doesn’t go out of its way to lionize the controversial figure. In fact, it doesn’t provide all that much insight into Guevara as a person or a political thinker. There’s nothing about our man Guevara’s background, and aside from a brief mention of his wife and child back in Mexico, there’s precious little personal information. The film is confined largely to Guevara’s time on the ground in Cuba. It’s mostly concerned with the day-to-day operations of a rebellion—from the planning to the infighting to the armed conflicts. There are hints of drama swirling all around Guevara. (Could he have had an affair with that woman? Or that woman? Was there any sort of rivalry between headline-grabbing Castro and hardworking Guevara? What down-and-dirty things must he have done to conquer an entire country?) But Che isn’t interested in such unseemly human concerns. Despite the restrictions of the script, Del Toro cuts a robust figure. It’s not hard to puzzle out why men (and women) would have followed a man with this combination of calculation, compassion and quiet charisma.
Part Two of Che could have been subtitled My (Mis)Adventures in South America. Having successfully cofounded Communist Cuba, Guevara lit out for South America where, in the late ’60s, he attempted to replicate his revolutionary success in Bolivia. Things didn’t work out quite so well there. Dumping the time-shifting narrative and conspicuous cinematography of his film’s first half, Soderbergh opts for a simple, chronological accounting of Guevara’s quixotic, yearlong running battle in the jungles of Bolivia. Again ignoring the interpersonal and ideological in favor of the rather mundane mechanics of revolution, Che: Part Two creeps at an even pettier pace—detailing the daily hunt for food, the steady attrition of untrained soldiers, and the constant need for new guns and ammo. (Blink and you’ll miss a Matt Damon cameo, though.) Soderbergh and his script (penned by Peter Buchman, writer of ... um, Eragon, apparently) never really explore why Guevara failed so badly in Bolivia. Was it a lack of national will? A stronger central government? The meddling intervention of American forces? No se.
There’s a subtle yin and yang at play with Che: Parts One and Two. Whereas Part One (sometimes referred to as The Argentine) is all triumph, Part Two (sometimes referred to as The Guerilla) is all tragedy. It’s a downer of a note to end on, really. Still, the film’s deromanticized portrait of la vida revolución is entirely fitting, given the subject at hand. As the weight of four-and-a-half hours bears down on viewers, Che makes a serviceable, somewhat resonant case for Guevara as countercultural martyr. Then again, his own life (and subsequent pop cultural hagiography) have accomplished largely the same task.