A big release from Criterion is always something to look forward to, and their two-disc presentation of Steven Soderbergh's mammoth Che is another outstanding title in their extensive catalogue of cinema's more important, individualist and culturally resonant productions.
Making such a bold and often unorthodox film about a real historical character who caused no end of consternation for the US administration back in the turbulent sixties could be considered something of a rogue manoeuvre in this volatile period, but Soderbergh has never been one to adhere to the strict path of the Hollywood blockbuster, although he has had his fair share of them. Biding his creative time, a la Guillermo Del Toro, between mass-consumption crowd-pleasers and obvious money-spinners and then much more personal, indie projects - The Oceans Eleven, Twelve and Thirteen series and then the likes of The Girlfriend Experience and Bubble, respectively - the forward-thinking filmmaker took an enormous gamble with this leviathan production. For a start, would anybody even want to see a four-hour-plus movie about the rise and fall of a famed revolutionary that would be told in two comprehensive parts, in predominantly foreign lingo, and boasting little in the way of actual action? The fact that it would showcase Oscar-winning actor Benicio Del Toro in the starring role and sport a highly detailed and vivid image thanks to the innovative Red camera was, probably, not enough to sway the multiplex throngs away from their vague notion that this film was just about a guy whose face, hair and beret looked cool on cult tee-shirts.
After being split sensibly down the middle and released something like a month apart, theatrically, Che can now be enjoyed, and savoured in one gargantuan sitting, or however you prefer to have your revolutions served-up. But both Parts are, indeed, two separate films. Shot differently - the first in 2.39:1 and the second in 1.78:1 - the look, tone and feel of each is distinct and different, and the lingering ambience of either stems from diverse constructions. Neither, however, play out in the manner you may have expected.
Part One - The Argentine
When Demian Bichir's Fidel Castro recruits Argentinian doctor Ernesto Che Guevara to help him overthrow Batista's ruling military government in poverty-stricken Cuba, the charismatic and maverick revolutionary (Del Toro) virtually agrees to hand his life over to a destiny of both hero-worship and infamy. Plunging into the jungles and letting his hair and beard grow in the rebel-favoured Sasquach style, Che organises the peasant uprising, arms and trains the downtrodden people of the river-banks and the mountains, and leads a devoted and ever-growing army in a campaign of hit-and-run raids on the tyrannical Batista's forces, all the while employing a decisive hearts-and-minds process on those caught in the crossfire. With an almost documentary-feel to the shooting and unshowy and realist performances right across the board to match, this fly-on-the-wall drama of escalating weight and nobility never runs when it can walk. Less existential than Terence Malik's The Thin Red Line, but certainly formed out of the same sombre cinematic clay, this is not action filmmaking, and the leading man is curiously and winningly kept as merely an enigmatic face in the midst of a large ensemble.
Such an atypical approach is at one refreshing and eminently rewarding.
Though he is rarely off the screen, Del Toro, by virtue of Soderbergh's wily determination to deny him any close-ups in this Part, simply blends in with the rest of his band. Only the wheezing of this asthmatic war-horse and master-tactician remind us that he is the authority in this theatre of heroic self-sacrifice and slow dictator-erosion. The screenplay by Peter Buchman, and adapted from Che's own account “Reminiscences Of The Cuban Revolutionary War”, only allows for the most meagre of exposition to emerge and we, like the rebels, rely on messages and word-of-mouth to glean anything of the state of the revolution as it gathers steam. Thus, we are equally as lost in the confusion and almost improvised situation that develops as Che and his committed soldiers are.
With terrific though, once again, low-key support from Rodrigo (Xerxes from 300) Santoro, Vladimir Cruz, Alfredo De Quesada, Julia Ormond as the ABC correspondent who interviews him Stateside during some weird, grainy black-and-white spells that punctuate the, otherwise, sweaty, jungle-set majority of the film, and a whole host of hairy hard-asses, Che Part One culminates in a brilliantly staged set-piece battle to assume control of the vital province of Santa Clara. Sporadic gunfire, occasional tank shellings and street-by-street assaults may not be in the gung-ho, hot-ballistic style of Black Hawk Down or the senses-paralysing intensity of Saving Private Ryan, but after a diary-led voyage of jungle hardship, suspicion, betrayal and privation, this passage is an exciting and satisfying pay-off. A spectacular coup of its own is the one-shot derailing of a troop-laden train that is rendered all the more forceful and memorable simply because it occurs without any Tony Scott-style snap-editing or Michael Bay pyrotechnics.
Che's heartfelt passion for freedom gels with Castro's string-pulling campaign until we get what amounts to a romanticised heroism that we see being partly manipulated, partly adored and almost always understated. His reputation sealed by early victories and a willing philosophy for the essential code and valour of guerilla warfare, Che becomes the morally and spiritually inspirational leader of the rebels, his words and his wisdom becoming the anthem to which his growing legions of troops march. Purposely disjointed and intercut with that black and white 16mm mock footage of Che delivering proclamations, condemnations and cleverly worded threats to the United Nations, this part, the shortest of the two, feels deliberately chaotic in structure and meandering in its own internal narrative. If am brutally honest, I never once felt immersed in this story, although I was never actually bored by it, either. The reasons for this are that the calm and deliberate nature in which Soderbergh plays out the saga became, for me, much too languid and marginalised. Little squabbles in the jungle fail to properly deliver their true gravity in the face of the larger war. And whilst the approach that only shows us a snapshot of the greater chaos and upheaval - we are forever seeing things from the isolated point of view of the rebels (which makes sense, of course) - the political barnstorming in the UN and the nefarious commands and decisions being made behind closed doors fail to connect us to the real momentum of the revolution and the rising groundswell that it creates.
But the experience of watching from the sidelines as Che's personal stature and standing within Castro's partisan overthrow grows is like a drug that you slowly absorb. You may wonder exactly where all this is going, from time to time, but when Part One is over, you actually feel a little drained and yet eager to get right back in there again.
Part Two - The Guerilla
This second film commences with Fidel Castro (Bichir, once again) reading aloud a letter from his once-supreme right-hand man, Che Guevara, explaining that he is resigning from the Cuban government. After which, it becomes apparent that the remorseless guerilla fighter has adopted a freakish disguise (that reminded of a half-starved Philip Seymour Hoffman) in order to slip into Bolivia so that he can help bring about another revolution. Under a variety of pseudonyms - Ramone, mainly, but someone even refers to him as Fernando at one point - to throw off the spies and American agents out for his now-notorious blood - Che gathers together another band of warriors and embarks on a similar campaign as that he found success with in Cuba. But this is not going to be anywhere near as easy. These people don't seem to want him there, and support for his crusade is considerably smaller than he expected, leading to something of a Ten Little Indians scenario that sees his men whittled down by hunger, exhaustion and disillusionment as much as by enemy bullets. The hearts and minds game is a bit of a non-starter and a few too many tactical errors - some forced and some just sad switches of circumstance, but all painfully damaging - contrive to leave him and his men harassed and on-the-run - exactly the opposite of what he has been used to. Fate dogs him every step of the way and, for Che, the clock is ticking towards a sordid and ignoble end.
For me, this second instalment, chronicling Che's covert and ill-fated sortie in a country that just isn't ready for him, is the better experience. Perhaps this is because of the growing sense of doom that begins to hang over the lush jungles and the harder terrain higher up in the hills that Che and his loyal, yet utterly beleaguered band of guerrillas, in this new theatre of war and martyrdom, wage their revolution across. Perhaps, it is because we get to see the idolised leader dropped down a peg or two, his personality both rougher and more humanised by an ordeal that puts his beliefs and his magnetism to the test. Perhaps it is because there seems, on the surface, to be more things happening in real time and less external dramas that feel glossed-over, brushed aside or just ignored. Because, here in Part Two, the camera gets in closer to the sweaty beards and there is more emotion on display. Whatever the reasons may be, Che Part Two, feels harder and more direct, less time twisted and cross-pollinated by out-of-context politicking.
The perplexing discovery that the underdogs in this particular regime aren't as easy to win-over is something that wrecks Che's mindset. You get the feeling that he has irrevocably trapped himself and that no matter what contingency plans he makes, or what fledgling aid he gets, the writing is on the wall. When the Bolivian Communist leader refuses to back the uprising, the seeds are sown for Che's eventual downfall but, all the while, we follow his brigade as they escape and evade the masses of troops assigned with bringing them down. Friendships are pushed to the limit and Che is forced to concede that the men he leads this time out are not made of quite the same stuff - but then this entire campaign seems to have been doomed from the very outset. Thus, this instalment is much more intimate and focussed, yet still haphazardly depicted, Soderbergh capturing the rough and tumble of the wretched enterprise in a more linear fashion, yet still preoccupied with the abstraction of the environment and the disjointed feel of the various encounters and battles and the debilitating effects they have on the famished and dwindling band.
Once again, the acting is on-the-hoof and hugely authentic. Dialogue means a great deal, but is never delivered in traditional movie-spiel. No-one is clichéd or hamstrung by convention. The action scenes are confusing and hectic, but never put together with flash-bang stunts and combat razzle-dazzle. The supporting cast are, once again, excellent. With more of an edge to the progressively worsening state they find themselves in, as well as the bleakness of their overall situation, faces are more harried, eyes more frightened. Franka Potente is fine as the devoted Tania and the errors that the character makes, which may mark a vicious turning point in Che's plans, and the weight they bear down on her are well-etched upon her performance. Matt Damon makes an unusual and brief cameo, and Lou Diamond Philips shows up for a spot of duplicitous rug-pulling, but it Cristian Mercado as Che's dependable brigade linchpin, Inti, who is most memorable. Sadly, some of the cast members, courtesy of their copious follicle foliage and the dirt and sweat that begrimes them become interchangable, but this only adds to the confusion and panic when the mob gets pinned-down later on and call out to one another through the gunfire.
Written by Peter Buchman, again, but this time joined by Benjamin van der Veen and adapted from Che's “The Bolivian Diary”, Part Two possibly has more emphatic moments that linger in the mind. The sickening realisation that Che has left his medicines behind, as he wheezes his way through the jungle, even punching his own horse in frustration at one point; the final hopeful, but guarded words to someone about to leave the protection of the brigade; a single head appearing on the horizon that, as we watch, suddenly becomes hundreds of heads as enemy troops amass on a hilltop much too close for comfort; the expression on the face of a peasant who has been forced lead some revolutionaries into a trap; and, of course, the now-celebrated sequence when a wounded Che simply asks a Bolivian soldier to untie him - all of these scenes offer a hypnotic collage of thoughts and impressions from a conflict that, to all intents and purposes, loses most of its meaning as the swirl of dust and flies and casual, isolated death seem to merge into one.
Quietly powerful and massively, yet intelligently restrained, Che Part Two is a slowly seeping wound of a film. It nags and concerns, and never really eases the pressure.
Both films are compelling, but the strange thing is that I found neither actually gripping, if you know what I mean. They are told in slow, often real-time style with Soderbergh intent on presenting the lived-in immediacy of events, snatched from Che's own personal diarised accounts because they are the most valid to this depiction, but this means that the larger canvas is something that we are not really privy to, compounded massively in Part 2, of course, but also playing a part in the victorious first half and, in turn, we feel the claustrophobia that he wants us to feel, but also a sense of narrative frustration that may not be quite enough for a story that had such huge cultural and political implications. Things don't quite feel as though they are presented in the fullest context which, for an idealised and personal approach is perfectly fine ... but for those who don't know and understand the conflicts properly, this can alienate and, possibly stagnate the psychological empathy they feel for the overall narrative. Then again, Che's crusades were hugely overlooked by many even at the time they were undertaken, rendering this loss of such Big Target identification contemporarily, if not historically, accurate. However, this approach then runs the risk of isolating the subject matter even further - meaning that only those who either remember, or have studied the events and their ramifications, can fully appreciate what the two films are trying to achieve. Without overt detail and chronology of the reasons and the motivations of what is occurring, this progressively insular biopic becomes nothing more than a snapshot of a man and a quest that many still question, though it remains a highly and provocatively detailed, character study.
Del Toro works wonders in a role that obviously means enough to him to downplay any sensationalism. The very downbeat and serious attitude that denied his Lawrence Talbot even the merest hint of a smile in The Wolfman is significant, I feel, as the prevailing qualities of being both the hunter and the hunted seem to adhere to his depiction of Che, as well. Both characters carry emotion deep within them and both are thrust along a path that they are unable, either by supernatural means or, as it is here, by unswerving duty to deviate from. As well as the hair and feral attributes of Che's guerilla fighter, De Toro's last two portrayals continue to fascinate simply by his determination not to hog the limelight. Brooding and insular, he is one of the most bewitchingly frustrating of actors. You continually wait for the outburst, the violence of his pent-up rage and the fury of some Latin-tinged verbal assault ... yet you never get anything of the sort. His Che is possibly the absolute epitome of that phenomenal self-control.
Directing with a fluid sparsity that carries the air of front-line journalism, Soderbergh finds the intimacy amid the vast and often captivating landscapes. Being his own DOP (using the alias of Peter Andrews) has also got to help get across this acute, yet bewildering vision of two nations, both divided, both worth fighting for and both just small geographical pockets into which globally significant issues were thrust. But, with this in mind, what doesn't come across so well, however, and feels like something of a dangerous omission to me, are the precise reasons why all this is taking place, why Che is going through all of this for people that, in some cases, are as oblivious to their subjugation as we, the viewers, are. Although the broad scheme is referred to often and, in Part One, it seems pretty clear what the core endeavour is about, Part Two seems content only to depict the Bolivian army as some faceless core of bogeymen, simply because we are told that is what they are. A crucial element that isn't properly brought home to us is the torture and massacres that they inflicted upon the poor mining people who suffered so terribly to bring in the revenue for a country whose only export was inferior quality tin. This should, perhaps, have been a more pertinent fact to have helped us understand what makes a man who had found peace and enjoyed a family life with five children and a loving wife want to give it all up in pursuit of a selfless dream for the betterment of others.
As it stands, this 2-piece exploration sifts only through the surface grit and bravery of Che's commitment, although this is still important and certainly helps to personalise and internalise the story without becoming bogged-down in the turbulence of politics. Che Guevara's rabble-rousing has been interpreted in films before - most notably with Jack Palance as Castro and Omar Shariff (!) as Guevara in the similarly titled Che! from 1969 - and has, of course, provided an image that has been emulated in things as diverse as TV's seventies comedy Citizen Smith and in John Carpenter's Assault On Precinct 13 and then, even more overtly, in his Escape From LA, with villainous future rebel Cuervo Jones. His look is distinctive and still extraordinarily hip, but the man is still a complete mystery to younger generations and, despite some considerable talent and effort involved, Soderbergh's remarkable film isn't likely to lift the lid up very much on what made the man tick. But it does provide a lot of food for thought, even if it will incite much brow-beating from the people who know fully well that he was most definitely not a saint.
To say a great deal more about the 2-film odyssey would rob it of much of its unfolding magic, for the effect of the double-whammy is one that possibly hits home some time after you have seen it. Little moments linger in the mind - that train-derailing in the first part, as well as the execution of the ethical and reputation-stealing fools who drag the message of the Cuban Revolution into bitter disrepute, and the string-led river ambush-cum-massacre and final violent encounter of the second - but Che, as a full hit, is a terrific achievement, however you break it down. Visually sumptuous, totally evocative and brilliantly obstructive of the usual action-movie sensationalism, it becomes a valid trek through the jungles of tangled politics, moral confusion and intense human drama. It is not for everyone, of course. Many will not even know who Che Guevara was, nor even what his fight actually still means to society today, and the quagmire of his campaigns, as seen here, will hardly send freshers to the history books either. But as a large slice of massively impressive cinema, Soderbergh's one-two double-punch is nothing if not admirable.
Part meditation on belief and social consciousness, and part detached observation of a man and a cause that attained both extremes of denouement - idolisation and death - and, ultimately, passed down into the annals of legend, Che is a rich and brilliantly cinematic experience.
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