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Steven Soderbergh will replace Terrence Malick as the director of “Che,” the film about Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara that will star Benicio Del Toro.

Bill Pohlad’s River Road is the film’s principal financier; because of that company’s deal with Focus Features, Focus is in early talks to distribute.

Soderbergh has committed to begin production in South America in August 2005, and he will supervise the writing of a new script.

The story of Che, a handsome and charismatic physician killed while still a young man, has attracted attention from many filmmakers over the years.

The helming change resulted after Malick abruptly dropped his plan to shoot “Che” this summer and instead committed to direct a film he’d been developing simultaneously, Colin Farrell starrer “The New World,” for New Line.

Malick, who had written the “Che” script with Del Toro and Ben Vanderveen, told the producers and financiers of “Che” that he intended to return and shoot the film a year later. But his withdrawal was unsettling for foreign distribs that had bought rights to the film at AFM from Gallic sales outfit Wild Bunch.

Some of that bitterness will evaporate with the emergence of Soderbergh, who originally intended to direct “Che” when he, Del Toro and producer Laura Bickford hatched the film after they made “Traffic,” a film that won Oscars for both the director and star.

Malick got the directing job only after Soderbergh stepped back into a producing role because his commitment to the sequel “Ocean’s Twelve” left him unavailable for a 2004 start date. Soderbergh begins shooting the “Ocean’s Eleven” sequel next week.

Bickford, Soderbergh and Del Toro will produce with Pohlad. VIP/Rising Star is expected to return as a financier and producer, as will Wild Bunch.

The producers also hope that Javier Bardem, Benjamin Bratt, Ryan Gosling and Franka Potente will remain involved if their schedules allow them to be in South America next year. That quartet had been set to play Guevara’s key group of revolutionaries.