Directed by: Steven Soderbergh.
Written By: Peter Buchman and Benjamin A. van der Veen.
Starring: Benicio Del Toro (Ernesto 'Che' Guevara de la Serna), Demián Bichir (Fidel Castro), Franka Potente (Tania), Lou Diamond Phillips (Mario Monje), Kahlil Mendez (Urbano), Julia Ormond (Lisa Howard), Édgar Ramírez (Ciro Redondo), Catalina Sandino Moreno (Aleida Guevara), Rodrigo Santoro (Raul Castro).
Steven Soderbergh’s four and a half hour Che is an epic masterpiece, the kind that Hollywood doesn’t make anymore - and never really did. The film, which takes its basic structure from Lawrence of Arabia where the first half has its hero on the ascendant and the second half has the character falling apart, is more in the vein of something that Gillo Pontecorvo or Bernardo Bertolucci would have made in the 1960s or 1970s. I saw in its entirety at the Toronto Film Festival; it will most likely be split into two parts for distribution. And that is a shame, because although each movie has different structures, stories and even aspect ratios, they feel like apart of a whole. Neither film would be as good by itself as they are together.
The first half covers the time between 1955 and 1962, but jumps around chronologically in time. We see Che as he first gets involved in the Cuban revolution in Mexico, and just how that campaign went, and why it worked as well it did. Throughout, we also flash to Che’s visit to New York in 1962 to speak at the UN, give interviews, and hobnob with the intellectual elite. This is the Che that is generally romanticized, and while it is impossible not to be drawn into Che’s worldview, the film doesn’t really glamorize him. It doesn’t hesitate to show the more brutal side of Che, and does not overlook the protests that came along with his visit to New York.
The second film is much more intimate, more straight forward than the first half. It covers a shorter period of time - 1966-1967 - and shows what happened when he tried to export the revolution to Bolivia. Where the first film was shot in a sweeping widescreen, the second film is shot in a more conventional 1.85:1 ratio. After the first half of the film, this one feels like the sides of the screen are closing in on Che, trapping him, much like the Bolivian army does to Che in the film. The conditions that made Cuba so ripe for this type of armed revolution were almost completely absent in Bolivia, so that Che and his men never really have a chance.
Central to the success of the movie is the casting of Benicio Del Toro as Che. This is a remarkable performance, uncanny in his likeness and inflections to Che, and how is able to fully capture Che as man. This is all the more remarkable because the movie doesn’t really explore the internal space of Che, but rather his outward actions and speeches. Nor does the film really give Del Toro any of those dramatic close-ups that actors love so much. The film concentrates on Che’s drive and determination, not so much his thought processes.
If you want to break the film down simply, it mainly examines what went right in Cuba and what went wrong in Bolivia. This is not an easy film, nor is it extremely mainstream in the way we think of when we think of Hollywood biopics. It doesn’t try to “explain” Che, doesn’t reduce him to a series of clichés, doesn’t link all the events in his life to some childhood trauma.
Supporting Del Toro is an exceptional cast, most of whom drift in and out of the frame. Many of the actors feel like real people, not actors. This makes it all the more remarkable that movie stars like Del Toro, Frank Potente, Catalina Sandino Moreno and Lou Diamond Phillips all fit in naturally with them the supporting players. The other truly great performance in the film is by Demian Bichar as Fidel Castro. Like Che, many people will come into the movie with fully formed opinions on Castro, and the movie will most likely not change those. Castro is portrayed as an ambitious, smart man, who nevertheless let others do the heavy lifting for him. He sits back and watches the revolution unfold around him – he was “too important” to risk getting killed. It is a great little performance.
Soderbergh has always been willing to take risks in his films, and try out different styles and genres. That he can go from an old time film noir like The Good German to the very mainstream Ocean’s 13 to this idiosyncratic epic in the style of the Italian masters is a testament to his skill behind the camera. Soderbergh hasn’t made a truly great film is a number of years now, but with Che he is back on track. I cannot think of another American film this year that is this wildly ambitious, or that succeeds quite like this one does. Whether or not anyone sees this film when it gets released later this year isn’t really the point. Soderbergh has made a film that haunts you afterwards, and one that I think will simply grow in esteem in the years to come.
Note: This is technically a 2008 film, so intially I wasn't going to post my review, which I wrote shortly after seeing the film at the Toronto Film Festival in September. But since the film wasn't released in Canada in 2008, and is finally hitting screens, at least in Toronto, on February 20th, I figured I would post the review. Besides, it's nice to be able to post a review of a film I actually loved. If you have any interest in seeing the film, you owe to yourself to track it down and see it on the bigscreen, in it's entirity in one sitting if you can. I'm sure for the readers in Waterloo, the Princess will probably give the oppurtunity to do that in the coming weeks.