Che (IFC Films, R)

film_che_sm.jpgThe Che Guevara of Stephen Soderbergh’s film would have approved of such a style, as it mirrors his approach to revolution.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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At an epic length of 258 minutes all told, Steven Soderbergh has made a biography of legendary revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara’s remarkable rise during the Cuban revolution and overreaching failure in Bolivia a scant eight years later. The drive and restless energy of the Argentine-born Guevara to bring revolution and his vision of justice to Latin America made him legendary, his face a transcendent—if now thoroughly objectified and commercialized—icon. To tell Guevara’s story, Soderbergh has constructed an intellectually engrossing but oddly emotionally detached epic, not made of sweeping scenes and long story arcs, but composed of brief vignettes, small interactions and super-personal engagements. The Guevara of Soderbergh’s film would have approved of such a style, as it mirrors his approach to revolution. While guided by eternal principles and obsessive about rules and discipline, he bounded from one encounter to the next, making each small interaction, whether with a new recruit or a high enemy official or a US Senator, count for maximum effect.

Che: Part 1 unfolds across three simultaneously advancing timelines, intermixing the dinner party in Mexico in 1955 where Guevara met Fidel Castro for the first time, the course of the Cuban Revolution beginning with Guevara joining Castro’s return to Cuba in 1956, and Guevara’s trip to New York in 1964 to address the United Nations. The proto-revolutionaries plot around the dining room table, the small guerilla band grows larger and more confident as it makes its way across Cuba, the superstar revolutionary cuts a swath across New York. The idealistic young doctor becomes the fatigues-wearing soldier becomes the intellectual revolutionary on the world stage.

If the first part is the improbable ascent to success, the second is the perilous descent into defeat. Che: Part 2 opens with Guevara’s disappearance from Cuba. By a letter to Castro and the Cuban people, he reiterates his determination to take the revolution to the rest of the Americas. After a brief interlude with his wife and children, he sneaks into Bolivia and follows the same recipe that led to success in Cuba: the reaching out to fellow revolutionaries, a focus on fundamental principles and small, deliberate action, and rigorous training. As he hacked his way across Cuba, fighting apathy, the regime and his own severe asthma, he tried to will Bolivia to revolution facing the same enemies: apathy of the locals, a determined dictator and his asthma, now compounded with malaria. However, while successes built upon each other slowly but relentlessly in Cuba, initial gains slip away as his guerilla band grows smaller and more beleaguered. Plans go awry and supporters are killed or disappear and Che meets his end. Without the benefit to the storyline of the flashbacks and flash forwards or the earlier thrilling string of successes and Guevara’s habit of waxing philosophical about his aims and dreams, Part 2 is a bit slow at times.

Star and producer Benicio Del Toro, for whom this has been a decade-long labor of love, inhabits and brings to life the icon Guevara. It is a remarkable performance and, without it, the film would not have worked. While the supporting cast is universally good, the fatigue-clad revolutionaries are not given sufficient time to develop. They appear from the background, some are introduced, strive for the revolution and are killed off in near anonymity. The restless engine of Del Toro’s Guevara is what drives the story and crystallizes the viewer’s attention. Without him, it would be hard to follow the action.

A curious lack of emotion pervades the film. While Del Toro and the other actors certainly express emotion—the joy of triumph, the sorrow of loss, revolutionary fervor, its choppiness and headlong rush from one scene to the next fail to sustain any emotion other that the relentless pulse of the revolution. Perhaps, therefore, as a film chronicling a revolution, telling the tale of one of the last century’s most famous revolutionaries, it is appropriate that its rhythms, and not those of the individual lives who give themselves up to it, drive the film. However, it could also be chalked up to the filmmaker, Soderbergh. Giving the independent film movement its mascot with sex, lies and videotape in 1989, Soderbergh has since displayed a deft touch for both crowd pleasing studio films (Ocean’s Eleven, Erin Brockovich) and indie gems (The Limey, Traffic). But all of his films bear a slight whiff of his first film’s ultra detachment–the story of a man who can only achieve sexual pleasure second-hand, by recording the experiences and fantasies of women. While in Che the viewer slogs through the jungles with these men and women, under their fearless leader, this emotional detachment never lets us feel like we are with them, to the film’s detriment.

However, this lack of emotion simply keeps Che a good film, not an immortal one. It is engrossing and well worth the careful delving into the mind and tactics of one of the last century’s most famous leaders. It is also a welcome return to fine filmmaking form for Soderbergh, back from almost decade-long detour into fluffy studio entertainment (the aforementioned Danny Ocean films) and obtuse art projects (Solaris, Eros, Bubble). | Joe Hodes

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