No doubt it will be back to the drawing board for “Che,” Steven Soderbergh’s intricately ambitious, defiantly nondramatic four-hour, 18-minute presentation of scenes from the life of revolutionary icon Che Guevara. If the director has gone out of his way to avoid the usual Hollywood biopic conventions, he has also withheld any suggestion of why the charismatic doctor, fighter, diplomat, diarist and intellectual theorist became and remains such a legendary figure; if anything, Che seems diminished by the way he’s portrayed here. Originally announced as two separate films, “The Argentine” and “Guerrilla,” to be released separately, the film was shown as one picture, with intermission, under the title “Che” (although neither this nor any other credits appeared onscreen) in its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival. Neither half feels remotely like a satisfying stand-alone film, while the whole offers far too many aggravations for its paltry rewards. Scattered partisans are likely to step forward, but the pic in its current form is a commercial impossibility, except on television or DVD.
Over the years, Soderbergh has occasionally displayed a disregard for audience expectations in films such as “Full Frontal,” “Solaris” and “The Good German,” and presumably makes the “Ocean’s” films in order to earn the opportunity to undertake such projects. But “Che” is too big a roll of the dice to pass off as an experiment, as it’s got to meet high standards both commercially and artistically. The demanding running time also forces comparison to such rare works as “Lawrence of Arabia,” “Reds” and other biohistorical epics. Unfortunately, “Che” doesn’t feel epic — just long.
For all its length, however, the mostly Spanish-language film provides a far from fulsome portrait of a complex man whose face still adorns T-shirts, campus dorm rooms and Mike Tyson’s body, but who is also scorned by many.
Part one begins intriguingly with a flurry of time-jumps showing Ernesto Guevara at different times and places: Meeting Fidel Castro for the first time in Mexico in 1955, in Havana and at the United Nations in 1964, onboard a ship in 1956 heading to Cuba with Castro and 80 other revolutionaries who formed the core of their movement, and suffering from asthma in the jungle the following year. Intro’s snippets of assorted information and events suggest an overall kaleidoscopic approach that, if pulled off, could conceivably provide a completed jigsaw puzzle by the end.
Card-shuffling technique employed by Soderbergh and scenarist Peter Buchman also lays in a lot of political background and dogma via interview and voiceover. A revolutionary, Guevara says early on, “goes where he’s needed,” which in the case of this well-educated, well-traveled Argentinean, means to foreign climes to hasten the spread of Marxism-Leninism.
It can’t necessarily be said that the film takes its protagonist’s point-of-view or reps an endorsement of his positions — Soderbergh remains too far outside his subject for that — but it does give such ample airing to communist ideological thinking — and presents American and Latin American authorities so exclusively as cardboard mouthpieces of imperialism and abusive dictatorships, respectively — that some conservative political commentators might work themselves into a lather over it. However, so few people will likely see the picture, at least in its current state, that there’s little chance it will have much cultural impact other than by the fact of its very existence.
In a patchwork manner, the film portrays with reasonable clarity the way in which a few dozen men fought their way across Cuba from east to west, gathering more recruits and winning the help of locals as they went in their determined effort to overthrow the corrupt, U.S. and Mafia-backed president, Gen. Fulgencio Batista. Lots of attention is paid to military strategy and procedure while Guevara, who enjoys Castro’s trust, is promoted to commandant, and, after being temporarily sidelined, begins to distinguish himself in battle and eventually leads his men into a key fight at Santa Clara, paving the way for the final push into Havana.
Oddly, “Che” seems more about denial of audience expectations and pleasure than it does about providing the intellectual and historical heft that would serve as a good alternative. Soderbergh withholds much in addition to dramatic modulation, narrative thrust and psychological insight: A feeling of revolutionary zeal, the literal transformation of Ernesto into Che, his marriages and family life, the depiction of the entry into Havana, Che’s oversight of many executions after victory, the Cuban missile crisis and Che’s wish that nuclear missiles be immediately fired at the U.S., his mounting distaste for Russians, his obsessive diary writing, his “lost year” as a failed revolutionary sparkplug in Africa before heading for his fatal misadventure in Bolivia, and even the famous photograph.
Instead, part one increasingly comes to sag under the stress placed on a less-than-disciplined editing strategy, and the chronologically straightforward part two, which chronicles the Bolivian disaster, has all the excitement of a military training docu; section is earmarked by the passage of days in the campaign, ending with Day 341, which is how long it feels.
A good portion of part one sketches in Che’s visit to enemy territory, New York City, to address the U.N., an effective sequence, presented in newsreel-style black-and-white, that appears to actually have been filmed at the headquarters building. While there, he also gives interviews and attends an upscale party where he thanks Sen. Eugene McCarthy for the Bay of Pigs invasion, because it brought so much support to the revolution.
As to Castro’s movement itself, Soderbergh delineates its slow progression from an outwardly democratic structure — decisions over punishments, including execution for infractions, are decided after general discussion and votes — to a more autocratic system. The many scenes involving the implementation of military discipline, hierarchical rank and decisionmaking hold a certain interest, but they aren’t charged with the sort of urgency or world-changing import they arguably deserve.
Nor does Che himself come off as the sort of dynamic, energetic leader that history suggests he was. Benicio Del Toro is physically an amazing match to the real thing, and he’s an outstanding actor in the bargain. Much of the time, however, he’s shown in some sort of repose, thinking, leaning back, talking in a mild way, part of a group. In line with the film’s overall antidramatic approach, this Che is not allowed to be much of an action hero, and the battles he leads are depicted in a clinical way, without tension or suspense. Overall, Del Toro’s performance, while entirely credible, is surprisingly recessive, especially in part two, where Che at times becomes a secondary character.
North American and European audiences won’t pay the issue much notice, but it will be interesting to see how Central and South American viewers react to the odd stew of Spanish accents the actors serve up. Although Che Guevara was from Argentina, Del Toro speaks a sort of neutral but Caribbean-inflected Spanish. Portuguese thesp Joaquim de Almeida sports a Portuguese accent as Bolivian president Barrientos, while many of Che’s Cuban comrades speak with blatantly Mexican accents. Catalina Sandino Moreno retains her native Colombian accent as the Cuban woman who will become Che’s second wife. Castro, played quite persuasively by Mexican thesp Demian Bichir, looks, sounds and gesticulates very like the man himself.
Part one is impressively shot with crystalline clarity in widescreen, while part two downsizes to the 1.85 aspect ratio to tell the theoretically more intimate story of Che’s decline and fall. Direct effect of this aesthetic decision, however, is to make part two look puny in comparison with the first. Soderberg
h, who as usual lensed under the nom de camera of Peter Andrews, used the new RED digital camera, and the result is highly promising.
Having cast off his various top administrative positions, and even his citizenship, in Cuba, Che made the decision, in late 1966, to try to ignite the flame of revolution in South America, beginning in the central country of Bolivia with the intention of moving rebellion outward toward neighboring countries. Everything worked against him; the mountains and climate were inhospitable, uneducated peasants distrusted foreigners, the local communist party withdrew its support, the watchful local authorities enjoyed the assistance of U.S. equipment and advisers and, despite Che’s having arrived anonymously and in disguise, rumors soon spread that he was in the country.
Che’s final hours, and his exchanges with various of his captors, hold a certain poignancy, but the resonance and implications of his murder are lacking; the possible American hand behind the decision to kill him isn’t even suggested.
Most secondary characters make impressions due to their physical traits (beard style, notable hat, glasses, complexion, et al.) rather than through developed characterizations. Individual psychology is denied everyone, which is at odds with the one way part two could possibly gain some impact through revision; that is, to overlay it with commentary from Che’s “Bolivian Diary,” which served as the inspiration for the section. Alberto Iglesias’ score comes and goes in abrupt fashion, sometimes to oddly melodramatic effect.
It would be surprising if this Cannes version, which was reportedly rushed to completion to meet its playdate, even sees the light of day again except perhaps on a multidisc DVD. By any normal standards, retailoring, presumably down to manageable length as a single film, is called for to allow “Che” any significant public life.