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Che (The Roadshow Version)
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Revolutionary Roads"
4 stars

On the one hand, it may strike some people as odd that Steven Soderbergh would want to undertake the Herculean effort of bringing the life of the still-controversial revolutionary leader Ernesto “Che” Guevara to the big screen--after all, during his incredibly prolific directorial career to date, the closest he has ever come to dealing with anything even remotely resembling the subject was the subplot in “Ocean’s Thirteen” in which Casey Affleck and Scott Caan inadvertently inspire the proletariat workers of a Mexican dice factory to revolt against the oppressive management. On the other hand, considering the fact he has spent his career subverting expectations from directing everything from enormously big-budget star vehicles like the “Ocean’s Eleven” films and “Traffic” to strange low-budget experiments like “Schizopolis” and “Bubble,” it probably shouldn’t come as too big of a surprise to see him making a film like “Che,” a two-part, four-hour-plus biopic epic that boldly attempts to take someone who has served as a symbol for both liberals and conservatives from the moment he was killed in 1967 and present him as a real person. The end result is a film that, much like its subject, is a flawed and fascinating work whose ultimate power is derived less from the ideas of the man at its center than by his intense charisma, supplied here by an amazing central performance from Benicio del Toro.

No doubt realizing that it would be a folly to even attempt to sum up Guevara’s entire life within the context of a single film, even one clocking in at 253 minutes, Soderbergh and screenwriter Peter Buchman have instead decided to focus for the most part on what were arguably the two most important periods of his life. In Part One, subtitled “The Argentine,” we are first introduced to Guevara (Benicio del Toro) in Mexico City in 1955 as he and his comrades, including Fidel Castro (Demian Bichir) and his brother Raul (Rodrigo Santoro), begin their plot to overthrow the corrupt regime of Cuban president Fulgencio Batista and return the country to its people. After months of planning, they, along with 82 men, set sail for Cuba and for the next two years, they slowly and methodically make their way through the countryside by successfully waging battle against Batista’s men and by winning the hearts and minds of the locals who are inspired to join up with the cause. By the time this section of the film ends, Guevara and his men are about to take Havana and while there is genuine excitement in the air, Guevara, who has accomplished all of this before the age of 30, is careful to note “We only won the war. The revolution begins now.” While we don’t actually see this particular triumph, we are reminded of his impact on the world through a series of vignettes sprinkled throughout the film in which Guevara, at the height of his popularity in 1964, comes to New York to deliver a fiery speech at the United Nations while fending off the fawning inquiries of intellectual admirers and a journalist (Julia Ormond) who is interviewing him with a strange sense of detached bemusement.

Skipping entirely over the period of time when Guevara was at the apex of his power (and ruthlessness, as his detractors would note), the second half of the film, dubbed “Guerilla,” kicks off in 1965 as he mysteriously vanishes from Cuba as Castro reads a letter purportedly read y him announcing to the people that he is resigning from the party. One year later, Guevara turns up in Bolivia in with the hopes of running a revolutionary campaign similar to his strategy in Havana that will spearhead the overthrow of all of Latin America. This time around, needless to say, he is not nearly as successful as he is forced to deal with a populace not necessarily interested in joining the cause, soldiers whose dedication is questionable at best, the loss of Castro’s support, a brutal case of asthma that leaves him a wheezing wreck for much of the time, a Bolivian police and military force eager to capture him and the gradual involvement of America in the region. Even his name is no longer considered to be an advantage and he is forced to wage the entire campaign while trying to keep his true identity a secret from all but a few trusted aides. Nevertheless, he plods on even as the odds continue to rise against him until he is eventually betrayed by one of his own and captured by the Bolivian army and executed on October 9, 1967.

In bringing “Che” to the screen, Soderbergh has largely eschewed the conventions that one might expect to find in a biopic of this kind. Instead of milking the more overtly dramatic moments by offering up inspirational speeches that are gorgeously photographed and backed by rousing musical crescendos, he employs a far more subtle approach throughout that stresses the ordinary day-to-day details of trying to stage a revolution and examining the circumstances that allows one such movement to succeed, as it did in Cuba, and a similar effort to fail, as it did in Bolivia. Instead of giving viewers the potentially ridiculous sight of well-known actors in revolutionary garb, he has chosen to heighten the realism by casting relatively unfamiliar faces and when he does bring in the occasional known performer, such as Franka Potente, Victor Rasuk or Catalina Sandino Moreno, he shoots them in such a relentlessly un-Hollywood manner that you may not even register their presence until you spot their names in the credits. (There is, however, one exceptionally noticeable cameo from an instantly recognizable Hollywood star and while the sight of him is initially jarring, it does sort of make sense in a weird way as a sly cross-reference to one of his other recent roles.) Even on a technical level, “Che” subverts most expectations: while “The Argentine” goes about capturing the vast scope of the Cuban campaign by shooting it in glorious widescreen and largely avoiding close-ups (outside of the New York segments) in order to give us the big picture, “Guerilla” utilizes a smaller screen ratio in order to emphasize how Guevara’s world is slowly closing in around him as he futilely slogs his way through Bolivia to his fate.

Although without peer from a technical standpoint--the only thing more impressive than the fact that Soderbergh has managed to put together such an incredibly complex project is the fact that he did it on a relatively small budget for a film of its size and with a shooting schedule that allowed only 39 days for each half--“Che” does have a couple of flaws that keep it from achieving true greatness. For starters, the extreme length of the film does begin to work against it after a while. Like most revolutions, “Che” is more fun in the beginning when everything is filled with the promise of good times ahead than at the end when things have become compromised and everything seems to be falling apart. By the time “The Argentine” winds up, even those of you currently writing me notes invoking the question “What about the executions?” (and it should be noted that while they aren’t actually seen, the film does make explicit reference to them during the interview scenes in the first half) may find themselves responding with excitement as Guevara heads off to Havana. However, “Guerilla” is essentially the chronicle of a failure and while it may be interesting from an intellectual standpoint, the actual experience of watching Benicio del Toro huffing and puffing his way to a fate that everyone in the audience is privy to for over two hours is borderline excruciating. Speaking of the second half, Soderbergh has made the decision to shoot the entire thing in a more elliptical manner that frankly references the cinematic style of the great Terrence Malick (who was at one point slated to direct a version of this project centering entirely on the Bolivian campaign before he moved on the “The New World”). The trouble is that while Malick might have been able to make something compelling and naturalistic out of that approach, you are always feeling the strain of Soderbergh trying to ape his style and while it does inspire the occasional arresting image (especially the haunting vision of the Bolivian troops slowly appearing from the mist en masse like ghosts), it winds up slowing the second half down even further.

However, the most spellbinding element of “Che”--the thing that will keep viewers glued to their seats even as the action and drama begin to lag--is the amazing performance from Benicio del Toro in the lead role. Although the temptation must have been great to portray him as the bold and fearlessly heroic leader of the revolution, he has instead chosen a more intimate approach that allows him to play the role as a real person instead of as a walking T-shirt. Surprisingly for a movie like this, he doesn’t have any big dramatic moments that allow him to emote mightily in the hopes of perhaps nabbing himself an Oscar nomination. Instead, his big moments are the quieter ones--the scenes in which he tries to inspire and educate the men serving under him, the sequence in which he returns home in full disguise before the Bolivian misadventure and interacts with his children even though they don’t know his real identity and his final moments as he gradually begins to accept his fate. It is a great performance, arguably the best of del Toro’s entire career, and even as the film surrounding it threatens to go off the rails, it keeps things steady and makes it one of the more compelling biopics to come along in a while.

Note: “Che” is currently opening throughout the country in two different formats. In some big cities, both halves are being presented as one big feature with a 20-minute intermission in the style of the old roadshow presentations that were popular in the Fifties and Sixties (and I suppose there is a little it of irony of such an admittedly bourgeois format being revived to present the Che Guevara story) while the rest of the country is getting the two halves as two separate films. I happened to see it in its roadshow incarnation and it strikes me as being the optimal way of watching it--although the idea of sitting through a four hour film may seem daunting to many of you, the grand length of the entire program adds a sort of epic sweep to the proceedings that I cannot imagine could be replicated by breaking it down into two halves.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=18375&reviewer=389
originally posted: 01/16/09 00:00:00
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User Comments

6/12/11 mr.mike Part 2 is repetetive and nearly unneccesary. 2 1/2 stars. 3 stars
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  12-Dec-2008 (R)



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