Che: Part One and Part Two (2008)
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Written by Peter Buchman, Benjamin A. van der Veen
Starring: Benicio Del Toro, Demián Bichir, Rodrigo Santoro, Catalina Sandino Moreno, María D. Sosa, Carlos Bardem, Joaquim De Almeida, Lou Diamond Philips, Franka Potente
Run Time: 129 minutes (Part One); 128 minutes (Part Two)
MPAA Rating: Rated R
Steven Soderbergh’s four-hour, two-film portrait of the iconic Argentine revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara is nothing like a conventional biopic. With almost no coverage of Che’s private life, it doesn’t adhere to the biopic’s need to personalize its subject or dive into a psychological inquiry; nor does it take great pains to put Che into a historical perspective. And Soderbergh’s refusal to take a political stance or judge Che’s political actions will exasperate those who prefer a clear-cut vision of who Che was—whether it is to affirm their view of him as a tyrannical ideologue or revolutionary hero. Although it contains elements of each, the movie is neither a textbook characterization of a fanatic, nor an exalted look at a heroic figure. Through an ingenious set of artistic decisions, Soderbergh has done what a more impassioned or politically motivated filmmaker might have been unable to do; he has managed to strip the character of Che Guevara down to his essence, giving us a portrait of the man that at times feels very detached, but also profoundly naturalistic. To someone like me, who knew very little beyond recognizing Che as a symbol of Latin America’s fight against American imperialism, the film was a revelation, an enlightening analysis of a man whose devotion to a political movement defined his life.
The film (rather, films, since it will mostly be distributed as two separate films, which means separate tickets, separate screenings) is evenly divided into two distinct periods in Guevara’s life—the first film (entitled The Argentine) is devoted to his involvement in the Cuban Revolution, beginning with his meeting with Fidel Castro in Mexico in 1956 and ending just before Castro’s rebels take Havana in the final victorious battle that ousted Batista’s regime. Part Two (The Guerrilla) is also a re-enactment of a revolution, this time the failed attempt to organize insurgents in Bolivia in 1967, where Che eventually met his death.
Both films meticulously deal with the military maneuvers and tactical decisions, the recruiting of rebels and the maintaining of morale, the physical hardships and the sheer grit and determination of guerrilla warfare. But though the stepping off point is the same, the two parts veer off drastically from there. Part One is a story that ends in victory, and leaves us with a sense of elation. Part Two dives immediately into doom, and for two hours we are kept witnesses to failure. Unlike the Cuban Revolution, in which everything seemed to come together in a growing wave of communal strength, Che’s efforts in Bolivia consisted of one demoralizing misfortune after another. The two movies are uncannily oppositional in almost every aspect. Che’s almost fanatical adherence to his ideological beliefs comes across as heroic in Part One, and pathetic in Part Two; his determination in Cuba morphs into desperation in Bolivia. The two movies are like the yin and yang, the heaven and hell, of an existence; separately, they each describe an exaggerated version of reality, but together, they come very near the truth.
Soderbergh made a conscious decision to concentrate on Che’s time fighting in Cuba and Bolivia, and so the film shows almost nothing of his personal life, no details about Che’s middle-class upbringing, his early career as a doctor, his marriages, his friendships, where he went on vacation. The only extended time he is shown out of combat is in Part One, which re-enacts his visit to the U.N. in 1964 to speak on behalf of Cuba’s new government under Castro. Part One intercuts between this visit (filmed in grainy 60s era black-and-white) and the fighting in Cuba, whereas Part Two is a strictly linear progression from one battle and one retreat to the next.
Soderbergh’s concentration on warfare, on the physical aspect of revolution, is part of a larger decision to work close-up rather than the grand, all-encompassing view. Instead of sweeping through Che’s life with a large net, Soderbergh chose to take a magnifying glass and focus on Che’s conduct as a soldier, a leader and a public persona. Soderbergh has more of a scientist’s focus rather a dramatist’s one; it’s a less obtrusive way to reveal character, and I think, ultimately, a more interesting way. We see Che in the process of doing something, of giving orders and organizing men, and it is through these actions that we get to know the man.
As Che, Benicio Del Toro re-enacts these details with the same concentration on minutiae. Every asthmatic cough Del Toro utters, every soft-spoken command, is made with a certain pitch, which in turn sparks an understanding of his character. It’s an extremely physical performance, a great performance. Del Toro embodies Che completely. It reminded me of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s performance as Truman Capote—Del Toro disappears in the part.
Beautifully photographed by Soderbergh himself with the new RED digital camera, Che is also a movie about the land. Both films comment on how terrain has an effect on everything, from guerrilla tactics to indigenous culture. Soderbergh mostly shot outdoors, and the scenery is closely tied to the story. In Cuba, the uncultivated forests serve as hiding places for the rebels; in Bolivia a ravine becomes a death trap. Shooting outdoors allowed Soderbergh to use available light, and the lightweight digital camera gave him movement, both of which give the film an intimate quality. And yet, Soderbergh’s directing is so assured that the film doesn’t look rough-hewn at all; in fact, it is a visually gorgeous production.
If it is one of the duties of a film critic to evaluate a film’s worth, I find it hard to understand why there is not a unanimous opinion among critics that Che is an outstanding film. It is beautifully shot, brilliantly acted, meticulously researched, and courageously edited—a bold experiment in filmed biography that gives us a visceral experience of the kind of courage and sacrifice that revolution demands. So at the risk of sounding like an opinionated zealot myself, I would like to address all those critics who have refused to acknowledge Soderbergh’s magnificent effort with the same epithet Tina Fey used to address her own critics at the recent Golden Globe awards. In her words, “You can suck it.”