Che: Soderbergh’s Ambitious but Disappointing Biopic of Revolutionary Hero and Martyr

Cannes Film Fest 2008 (In Competition)–It’s easier to evaluate Che, Soderbergh’s epic-length chronicle of the rebellious leader, by its intent than by its result. It’s also easier to say what the movie is not than what it is about.
Defying the conventions of the Hollywood biopic (the rise and fall format), “Che” unfolds more as a compilation of scenes from the life of an extraordinary man than as a coherent tale with a dramatic arc, POV, or any other organizing principle that would facilitate the viewers’ interest in the legendary man’s life and his times.
One of the most revered and complex man of the twentieth century, Che possessed a multi-faceted persona as Marxist revolutionary, politician, author, physician, military theorist, guerrilla leader, and heroic martyr.

Though not a mess structurally, as some critics had unfairly charged, “Che” is not an easy film to watch, and not just because of its length or its largely foreign language. Soderbergh and his star Benicio Del Toro (who’s also credited as producer) deserve credits for honoring Che and his legacy by letting him and his comrades speak mostly in Spanish, though the blend of Latino dialects and accents by the large, international cast, presents another problem.

The filmmakers have not met the dual challenge of condensing events that take place in various countries and different times and still manage to tell a sweeping story that’s realistic and engaging. Initially, the film was going to shown in two separate parts, but it was presented in Cannes Film Fest as one long evening, a four hour plus saga, briefly and simply called “Che.”

At its current shape and length, it’s hard to see any theatrical possibility. Soderbergh seems to have two choices, to trim the two parts into a shorter (say three-hour), more dramatically involving picture or to forgo theatrical distribution and present the yarn on TV, on one of the cable channels in two parts as a mini-series.

If this review comes across as mixed-to-negative, it’s a result of my conflicted feelings after attending the first press screening. One of the most gifted filmmakers around, who likes to takes risks, Soderbergh should be praised for trying to do something different than the norm, even if the result is disappointing. I felt similarly about Fernando Meirelles’ “Blindness,” perceived by many critics as a misfire. Here is my dilemma as a critic: One the one hand, we fault filmmakers for making mainstream films by following genres and formulas, and yet when they experiment with new, more radical formats, we dismiss their work if it doesn’t fulfill our expectations. So it’s with very divided emotions that this review is written right after the screening.

“Che: Part One,” originally titled “The Argentine,” examines the charismatic youth’s rise in the Cuban Revolution, from doctor to rebel army commander to revolutionary hero. Che’s motto is expressed early on when he says, a revolutionary goes where he’s needed, suggesting a person who gives priority to broad, seemingly unachievable socio-political goals.

“Che: Part Two,” earlier titled “Guerrilla,” finds Che at the height of his fame and power, after the Cuban Revolution. More than a soldier, Che is now a glamorous figure on the world’s political arena stage. Later on, Che reemerges incognito in Bolivia, operating entirely underground. He organizes a small group of Cuban comrades and Bolivian recruits to begin what he perceives a new future, the grand Latin American Revolution. Taking his sudden disappearance as a given, the saga then tries to answer the questions of why did Che leave Cuba Where did he go Is he still alive

A description of the broader political context is in order. It all began in 1952, when General Fulgencio Batista maneuvered a coup d’etat in Cuba, taking control of the presidency and suspending free elections. Though his corrupt dictatorship was backed by 40,000-army men, a young lawyer named Fidel Castro tried to incite a popular rebellion by attacking the Moncada barracks on July 26, 1953. As is known, the attack failed, and Castro spent two years in prison before going into exile in Mexico.

Meanwhile, a young Argentinean idealist named Ernesto Guevara had become involved in political activity in Guatemala. In 1954, when the elected government of Jacobo Arbenz was overthrown in a CIA-organized military operation, Guevara escaped to Mexico, and after a contact made in Guatemala he sought out a group of exiled Cuban revolutionaries.

July 13, 1955 marked a quiet yet momentous event in the history of the Cuban Revolution. In a modest apartment in Mexico City, Ernesto Guevara was introduced to Castro by Fidel’s younger brother, Raul. Che immediately enlisted in a guerrilla mission to get rid of the authoritarian regime. It’s the Cubans who nicknamed the young man “Che,” a popular form of address in Argentine.

On November 26, 1956, Castro sailed to Cuba with 80 rebels, only 12 of whom had survived. One of those 12 was Che, an idealistic Argentine doctor who shared Castro’s goal to overthrow Batista’s corrupt dictatorship. According to this chronicle, Che quickly grasped the art of guerrilla warfare and proved indispensable as a fighter. After throwing himself into the struggle, Che was embraced by his comrades and the Cuban people.

It may be a coincidence but the running time of each part is the same, 130 minutes, though one can easily rearrange the material to be presented in different, more engaging ways. There are thematic and tonal differences between the two segments, which also vary in quality.

The first chapter is stronger, perhaps because of the novelty of the approach and a most exciting beginning that jumps around chronologically and shows snippets (some in black-and-white) of imagery of Che at different point of his life, including his historic visit to the U.N. (Those scenes were shot early in the process due to renovations that the famous building were about to begin.

If Part One is structured more as an actioner, with the requisite battle scenes, Part Two is more of a thriller trying to resolve some personal, historical and political issues–with varying degrees of success.

Most of the characters, including Che, are also better defined and more fully realized in Part One, allowing Del Toro and his peers to develop deeper charac
terization. Part Two covers so many events that many of the characters have brief scenes, and even Che assumes a secondary role–until the very end, when he is captured, interrogated, and murdered in a series of impressively dramatic scenes that represent a highlight of the whole picture.

Reportedly Soderbergh has spent years dreaming about and planning this project, though judging by the end result, it’s hard to discern the director’s passion as the film lacks singular perspective or a particular POV that would justify its length. Indeed, the movie is too detached, looking at the dramatic persona from the outside, and the voice-overs and interviews make “Che “even more distant.

Before Cannes, according to some reports, Soderbergh was working around the clock to complete his films on time for the Croisette’s premiere; this time-pressure might have accounted for some of the problems. And if a pro like Soderbergh felt that the movie was unfinished, perhaps he should have presented “Che” as a work-in-progress, the way Coppola did when he bowed “Apocalypse Now” at the 1979 Cannes Fest, where it shared the Palme d’Or.

Like Soderbergh, scribe Peter Buchman claims to have spent years researching and writing the story, and he certainly offers numerous details about the shifting social backgrounds and political contexts, but in the end, his scenario is more like a collection of trees than a shapely forest. Sharply uneven, in sections, Buchman’s script sounds like an ideological platform of the various Latin America’s inequalities, all attributed directly to U.S. monopoly capitalism, neo-colonialism, and imperialism.

Previously, Buchman had penned another disappointing epic revolving around a heroic figure, “Alexander,” and the two movies, though completely disparate in directorial approach and visual style,” suffer from some similar flaws.

In theory, Che’s Bolivian campaign is a tale of idealism, tenacity, sacrifice, and guerrilla welfare, which ultimately fails, leading to his death. Through Che’s story, we are meant to understand why and how Che has remained for half a century a mythic hero, an inspirational symbol of idealism that continues to prevail in the hearts of many people around the world, particularly members of the younger generations. And though Soderbergh refuses to mythologize Che–unlike other literary, dramatic, and cinematic works about the subject–he also doesn’t succeed in illuminating him.

Allegedly, the project began with a single screenplay Buchman had written, which was divided into three narrative strands: Che’s life and the Cuban Revolution, Che’s fall and tragic ending, and in between Che’s trip to New York to address the General Assembly of the United Nations, in 1964.

A frustrating movie, Che the movie lacks any sense of a real flesh-and-blood character, and thus it’s impossible to feel sympathy or empathy for him.  Che was supposed to be a charismatic figure, but as written, directed, and played by Del Toro, the person on screen lacks charm. As it is, Che is sort of a dry (non-dramatic) account of events–though omitting some crucial chapters–perhaps concentrating too much on the jungle warfare.

 

End Note

Ernesto “Che” Guevara was born on May 14, 1928 and died on October 9, 1967, age 39.

Walter Salles’ “The Motorcycle Diaries,” which had also premiered at Cannes Fest (in 2005) was a simpler, more conventional, but also more involving and sympathetic portrait of Che as a young medical student traveling through Latin America in a journey that completely transformed his socio-political awareness and identity.

Cast

Che – Benicio Del Toro Fidel Castro – Demian Bichir Camillo Cienfuegos – Santiago Cabrera Celia Sanchez – Elvira Minguez Joaquin – Jorge Perugorria Ciro Redondo – Edgar Ramirez Rogelio Acevedo – Victor Rasuk Benigno – Armando Riesco Aleida Guevara – Catalina Sandino Moreno Raul Castro – Rodrigo Santoro Little Cowboy – Unax Ugalde Alejandro Ramirez – Yul Vazquez Moises Guevara – Carlos Bardem Barrientos – Joaquim de Almeida Ciro Algaranaz – Eduard Fernandez Regis Debray – Marc-Andre Grondin Dario – Oscar Jaenada Urbano – Kahlil Mendez Guest – Matt Damon Capt. Vargas – Jordi Molla Rolando – Ruben Ochandiano Lisa Howard – Julia Ormond Ciros Bustos – Gaston Pauls Mario Monje – Lou Diamond Phillips Tania – Franka Potente Roth – Mark Umbers

Credits

A Warner Intl. Release (in France) of a Wild Bunch and Telecino presentation of a Laura Bickford/Morena Films production. International sales: Wild Bunch, Paris. Produced by Bickford, Benicio Del Toro. Executive producers, Alvaro Augustin, Belen Atienza, Frederic W. Brost, Gregory Jacobs, Alvaro Longoria. Directed by Steven Soderbergh. Screenplay Peter Buchman, part one inspired by “The Cuban Revolutionary War” by Ernesto Che Guevara, part two inspired by “The Bolivian Diary” by Guevara. Camera: Peter Andrews (Soderbergh). Editor: Pablo Zumarraga. Music: Alberto Iglesias. Production designer: Antxon Gomez. Art director: Clara Notari. Set decorator: Pilar Revuelta. Costume designer: Bina Daigeler. Sound: Antonio Betancourt (part one), Aitor Berenguer (part two); supervising sound editor, Larry Blake.

Running time: 260 Minutes. Part One: 130 Minutes. Part Two: 130 Minutes.