Well into the fourth hour of “Che,” the extraordinary and challenging new work by director Steven Soderbergh, the film’s subject -- the Argentine-born political insurgent Ernesto Guevara -- strikes a recalcitrant horse. Wheezing and depleted from severe asthma, his dream of a pan-Latin American revolution imploding disastrously in the mountains of Bolivia, the uncharacteristically frustrated Guevara, played with an unforced authority by Benicio Del Toro, lashes out against the beast. It’s the only emotionally naked moment in a work that studiously resists the traps and conventions of mainstream film biography.
The predominantly Spanish-language feature is about as far from Soderbergh’s fizzy celeb-o-rama “Ocean’s Eleven” and its sequels as the filmmaker could get (short of his star-free experiments such as 2005’s “Bubble.”) As an exploration of the rigors of armed struggle, “Che” favors action over psychology. It makes no attempt to explain the soul of a revolutionary by connecting a series of dramatic dots. Neither does it indulge in romance, however inextricably linked that may be to its protagonist; Che is probably the most idealized of political figures, his beret-topped, beautiful visage having taken up permanent residence in the pantheon of pop iconography, fueling vague collegiate notions of leftist martyrdom.
“Che” scraps vague notions for specifics. Its focus is guerrilla warfare. Guevara was a Marxist intellectual, but in the two chapters of his life depicted here -- the successful Cuban Revolution of the late 1950s and the failed attempt, nearly a decade later, to orchestrate an uprising in Bolivia -- he was, above all, a strategist, tactician and battlefield medic. The film is hardly devoid of incident, but for those who prefer their biopics constructed from aha moments (breakthroughs and breakdowns), it might feel stubbornly leeched of drama or thematic thrust.
For those who balk at the nearly five-hour commitment, including intermission, independent distributor IFC will follow the Academy-Award-qualifying “roadshow” run with the film’s January release as two separate features, simply titled “Che Part One” (originally called “The Argentine”) and “Che Part Two” (“Guerrilla”).
Both halves of the film open with maps that provide mini-lessons in geopolitics, but from there their aesthetic approaches differ (the second section being less visually stylized). Working as cinematographer under his nom-de-camera, Peter Andrews, Soderbergh has shot Part One in widescreen, with an emphasis on meticulously composed tableaux and medium shots. This is not Che in close-up, but Che in interaction. Often he’s not even the central element in the frame; when he disciplines a young rebel soldier, Che’s face is off-screen.
Part One crosscuts scenes of the thrumming jungle, where Che and Fidel Castro (well-cast Mexican actor Demian Bichir) tighten their chokehold on Fulgencio Batista’s dictatorship, with dynamic black-and-white re-creations of Che’s 1964 trip to New York. By then he’s Cuba’s minister of industry, striding to the podium at the U.N. General Assembly to denounce imperialism. The surrounding media tour and his guarded mingling with Manhattan’s intelligentsia provide some of the most sublime moments in Del Toro’s understated performance. Witness the priceless exchange backstage at a television studio, when El Comandante smilingly refuses, and then reconsiders, a staffer’s offer of makeup.
Working from the prolific Guevara’s writings, screenwriters Peter Buchman and Benjamin A. van der Veen have not attempted to turn a history lecture into drama or to argue (unnecessarily) against injustice. But they have cleverly used Che’s interview with actress-turned-journalist Lisa Howard -- worthy of a biopic herself, and smartly played by Julia Ormond -- to articulate the philosophy and pragmatism of the Cuban Revolution, with the translator’s English voice-over enhancing Cuba-set sequences.
If the film’s adamantly public perspective is limiting, it’s also unexpectedly rewarding. None of the supporting characters, including Rodrigo Santoro, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Franka Potente and Lou Diamond Phillips, gets under the viewer’s skin or is meant to. But in their crucial interactions (and credible performances) whole worlds unfold, putting in ever-deepening relief Che’s single-mindedness, charisma, introspection and ruthlessness.
Where Soderbergh miscalculates badly is in his use of point-of-view camera work when Che is injured and, soon after, executed. The self-consciously cinematic choice is thoroughly out of sync with the film’s dispassionate documentary sensibility.
If the second half feels more problematic than the first, that’s because it is, in essence, a countdown to execution. Death clings to the events in Bolivia’s countryside, as the CIA wages its own battle for the campesinos’ hearts and minds. The effect is both enervating and elegiac.
It might be tempting to characterize “Che” as a rebuttal to the more conventional storytelling and humanist exuberance of 2004’s “The Motorcycle Diaries,” from director Walter Salles. But they’re not at odds. Soderbergh has expressed his admiration for that film, and Del Toro effortlessly suggests Guevara’s formative adventures as a bourgeois rebel. The political realities of his legacy can be endlessly debated, but in this flawed work of austere beauty, the logistics of war and the language of revolution give way to something greater, a struggle that may be defined by politics but can’t be contained by it.
MPAA rating: R for some violence.
Running time: 4 hours, 17 minutes (special presentation with intermission)
Playing: At the Landmark, 10850 W. Pico Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 281-8233.