Che, Steven Soderbergh's epic-length consideration of Latin American revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara, feels almost like the director's bid to atone for his Ocean's 11 movies. The star-driven caper comedies celebrate Las Vegas, superficial glitz and the joys of money for nothing. What better way to compensate than an austere cinematic portrait of an iconic figure who gave his life in opposition to materialism and poverty?
Watching Che certainly feels like an act of penance. Soderbergh and producer/leading man Benicio Del Toro present what could be called an anti-biopic, studiously avoiding the kind of big gestures and historical oversimplifications that define more crowd-pleasing films about real personalities. Guevara's background as a doctor, his formative experiences, even his wife and children barely get passing mentions in the film's four-and-a-half-hour running time.
Instead, the film splits into two parts to take a clinical look at Guevara during two of the most significant periods of his life. The first half (unofficially called "The Argentine" in reference to Guevara's Argentinian origins) focuses on Guevara's crucial, decidedly unglamorous work as a guerilla fighter in the Cuban revolution in the late 1950s. Part one switches from the lush greens and yellows of the Cuban jungles to black-and-white re-creations of Guevara's New York visit in the early 1960s, granting interviews and addressing the United Nations. The second half, "Guerilla," follows Guevara's doomed bid to bring the revolution to Bolivia in the mid-1960s.
Soderbergh approaches the film like a Ph.D. dissertation, as if he's re-creating entries in Guevara's day planner from the scrupulously recorded dates in question. Guevara marches through jungles. He suffers an asthma attack. He treats a comrade's wounds. He extols the values of literacy. He marches through the jungle some more. Del Toro won the Best Actor award for Che at last year's Cannes Film Festival and never seems to be "playing" Guevara, but simply behaving exactly as Guevara would. The approach, however, proves not just emotionally remote from the audience, but even physically distant from the camera. So often Soderbergh places Del Toro in long shot or facing away from the camera, it's as if David Lean, instead of making Lawrence of Arabia, made a film called The Back of Lawrence of Arabia's Head.
Che's two parts each conclude with extended battle scenes that have the verisimilitude of war documentaries, yet build to sharply opposite outcomes. Guevara and his forces sweep block-by-block through Santa Clara in a decisive victory for the Cuban revolution, but Guevara's compatriots end up chased like animals through the Bolivian mountains near the end of the second film. Che's split structure invites consideration of why the Cuban revolution took root but the Bolivian one failed to win the necessary hearts and minds.
Even more than its running time, Che's dispassionate point of view makes great demands of its audience. Despite Soderbergh's intellect and Del Toro's talent, the film doesn't quite offer an equitable return on investment. But perhaps only a capitalist would expect such a thing.
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