Benicio Del Toro copped the Cannes best actor prize as Che, but failed to win over North American critics.
CHE directed by Steven Soderbergh, written by Peter Buchman and Benjamin A. van der Veen, with Benicio Del Toro, Demián Bichir and Catalina Sandina Moreno. An E1 Films release. 255 minutes. Opens Friday (February 20). For venues and times, see Movies. Rating: NNN
Steven Soderbergh's che was the biggest story of the 2008 Cannes Film Festival. It's a thoughtful but dramatically neutral study of the iconic freedom fighter, embodied by Benicio Del Toro in a performance distinguished by its squinty Zen calm.
Holding that one note for an entire epic is an impressive feat, no question - and earned him the festival's best-actor prize - but it's not exactly dynamic or compelling. After the press screenings, the conversations weren't about whether the film was good or bad, but about how much more editing Soderbergh would have to do to get it released.
Not much, as it turns out. By the time the movie reached the second half of the festival circuit - Toronto, New York, London - Part One had been tightened by about 10 minutes and an overture had been added to each section, the better to acquaint the audience with the topography of Cuba and Bolivia. But that's about it.
There is minimal biographical detail and absolutely no backstory on offer, Walter Salles having covered Guevara's early years in The Motorcycle Diaries a couple of years before. In Soderbergh's vision, Che is a fully ?formed zealot of the people.
Part One, which was intended to be released separately as The Argentine, jumps back and forth between a number of key events in Che's relationship with Castro and Cuba, using his fiery 1964 speech to the United Nations as a kind of chronological anchor. Part Two, originally called Guerrilla, picks up a couple of years later, when Guevara assumed his later role as a sort of revolutionary evangelist training a new generation of freedom fighters in Bolivia. Things don't go as well.
Part One is told in the fragmented, slightly stylized manner of Soderbergh's Out Of Sight and Traffic, while Part Two is a much more conventional work, with a linear narrative - and a different aspect ratio, for those of you tracking the director's idiosyncrasies. Neither half lets us know Che Guevara at all.
In Del Toro's interpretation, Guevara is a man so committed to his cause that he's cast everything else aside - family, friends, his own physical and emotional needs - to bring "the revolution" to the world. He's convinced that his movement is sure to endure, regardless of his own fate.
It's an unusual choice; maintained over nearly four and a half hours, it's exhausting, particularly since Soderbergh's avoidance of conventional narrative beats means he spends a great deal of time not quite engaging with the key moments in Guevara's biography. (Most of Part Two is about Che in the jungle in Bolivia telling young hotheads to chill out.)
I don't doubt that Soderbergh has made exactly the kind of movie he set out to make. As I've been saying since the days of The Underneath and Schizopolis, this guy's failures are more interesting than most people's successes. But that's a pretty tepid endorsement.