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'Che' stars Benicio Del Toro, Demian Bichir
Director Steven Soderbergh's two-part, four-hour "Che" is part folly and part fulfillment, a methodical if coolly romantic portrait of the most familiar 1960s T-shirt icon outside the peace symbol. Some would argue way, way outside the peace symbol. Whatever your political sympathies, Soderbergh's project is likely to exasperate, less for what's there than for what it excludes. It's a triptych with the middle panel missing. Why ignore such a provocative part of any subject's life, the one in which idealistic political theory is tested by controversial, bloody practice?
Even so "Che" is Soderbergh's most interesting film in years, defiantly eccentric and absorbing at its best. Both parts focus, obsessively, on guerrilla strategy and grass-roots process. You don't learn much about Ernesto "Che" Guevara, played by Benicio Del Toro, except how he may have interacted with his fellow rebels while struggling toward revolution. Framed in medium shot, in the mountains of Cuba and the ravines of Bolivia, Guevara is seen among his fellow rebels without any dramatic heightening. Del Toro, who won the best actor award at last year's Cannes Film Festival, is often placed in the frame with four or six or nine other actors, taking no dominant position. In the same communal spirit there are none of the usual blood and thunder or dramatic epiphanies common to film biography, especially biographies wrestling with the warrior life.
Originally the project was designed as two separate films about the Argentina-born doctor and revolutionary, carrying the titles "The Argentine" (written by Peter Buchman, covering the years 1952-1964, in scrambled chronology) and "Guerrilla" (written by Buchman and Benjamin A. van der Veen, covering Guevara's last two years, 1966-1967). In many markets "The Argentine" has already gone out solo, to be followed later by Part 2. In a handful of cities, though, the two halves have been paired as one so-called roadshow presentation, with a 30-minute intermission. Later this month both halves of "Che" will become available via video-on-demand on the Independent Film Channel.
True to the roadshow tradition, "Che I" opens with an 1960s-style overture provided by composer Alberto Iglesias, played while the screen lays out a map of Cuba, its provinces and the Sierra Maestra range, the mountains where Guevara and his fellow revolutionaries plotted their next move, with Fidel Castro, in the overthrow of the Fulgencio Batista regime. The film jumps back and forth between Guevara's 1964 United Nations address; his earlier years in Mexico, where he meets Castro (Demian Bichir); and the campaigns against Batista's army.
Then comes the showcase sequence: the siege of the city of Santa Clara, en route to Havana. Soderbergh breathes a sigh of relief with this subtly virtuoso 45-minute scene, putting us alongside Guevara and his fellow rebels, block by block. While you wouldn't call this typical war-movie spectacle, Soderbergh does have the advantage of homing in on a single, linear military excursion for a sustained period of time. The director's shrewd, too, about involving us in the action without turning the action into Hollywood-style thrills.
"Che II" picks up in 1966 with Guevara in disguise as a Uruguayan diplomat sneaking into Bolivia. Numbering only 50 or so, Guevara's makeshift National Liberation Army begins a long, circuitous march toward doom. ( Lou Diamond Phillips pops up, briefly, as the head of the local Communist party.) As in Part 1, the filmmaking's effectiveness lies in direct relation to how little dialogue is being spoken.
Soderbergh shot Part 2 in a conventional aspect ratio, as opposed to the widescreen format of the first. With Che's capture, his world shrinks, and he's depicted more in isolated close-up. There's a fine scene late in Part 2, based on a firsthand account, in which Che is being readied for the firing squad and is held in a mud schoolhouse. He engages one of the young sentries in conversation and, almost subliminally, convinces him to let him free.
The director's preferred adjective for the tone of these films is "dispassionate." With Soderbergh acting as his own cinematographer, shooting with remarkable new lightweight digital video camera, the images capture the light especially well. The film gets right in there with Che and his soldiers. This man, Soderbergh's film implies, was most himself while away from it all, in tune with nature. No wonder Terrence Malick nearly made "Che," before "The New World" took him to another world.
Soderbergh allows one scene after another to play out at the same languid tempo. Some of the choices work wonderfully, as when the sound suddenly cuts out during the first battle scene in Part 1, and we hear Che's translator in voice-over relaying Che's theories about what it takes to instill the revolutionary spirit. The Brechtian distancing method takes you out of the action, but in an arresting way.
On the other hand, we hear a good deal about Che's reckless side without ever seeing it. Del Toro's Che is a creation of great skill and limited revelation. Del Toro, a first-rate actor, seems most interested (as is Soderbergh) in giving this complex figure his dignity, at the expense of our dramatic interest.
In both parts we hear the occasional dissenting voice, confronting Guevara about death warrants he signed as Castro's right-hand man. But the one time this theme is given any visual weight, it's a dodge: As Guevara addresses (sidewindingly) the charges at the 1964 UN meeting, the speech is cross-cut with Guevara's makeshift firing squad executing two bad apples in the rebel army years earlier. Thing is, they're bad apples who deserve it: One's a murderer; the other's a rapist. This is the opposite of complexity.
The 1969 film "Che!"—risible as it is: Jack Palance's Castro is one overripe peach, on a par with Stephen Boyd in "The Oscar"—at least dented the underbelly of the Guevara legacy. Soderbergh creates a wholly satisfying sequence in the siege of Santa Clara, whereas in '69, Richard Fleischer (a fine director, when he had a script) delivered only second-unit shots of fleeing officers and boilerplate such as "Che, did you hear the news"? Batista has fled the country!" None of that melodramatic hooey emerges in either half of Soderbergh's "Che." It contends with its own, subtler brand of hooey and evasion. But as a visual diary of a guerrilla on two missions, one on the rise, the other a dying fall, it's worth seeing, arguing about, chewing over and, depending on your response, revisiting.
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of violence and action, and some sexual content).
Running time: Part one, 2:09; Part two, 2:08.
Total running time: 4:47, which includes a 30-minute intermission.
Opening: Jan. 16 at the Landmark Century Centre Cinema, 2828 N. Clark St.
Starring: Benicio Del Toro (Ernesto "Che" Guevara); Demian Bichir (Fidel Castro); Carlos Bardem (Moises Guevara); Franka Potente (Tania); Catalina Sandino Moreno (Aleida Guevara); Santiago Cabrera (Camillo Cienfuegos).
Directed by: Steven Soderbergh; written by Peter Buchman and Benjamin A. van der Veen, based on the diaries of Che Guevara; photographed by Soderbergh (as Peter Andrews); edited by Pablo Zumarraga; music by Alberto Iglesias; production designed by Antxon Gomez and Philip Messina; produced by Del Toro and Laura Bickford. An IFC Films release. In Spanish with English subtitles.