Benicio del Toro as Che, a fully-formed zealot of the people
Cannes is sluggish today. And with good reason – as far as I could tell, the whole town was hung over from attending one party or another, or all of them in succession. I only attended the one for El Cant Des Ocelles, mostly because two glasses of bold Catalan red contain all the alcohol my liver can handle.
In a festival that runs on a paramilitary schedule, last night’s blowouts had to have been strategically planned to take advantage of this morning’s lack of an 8:30 am screening – an apparent nod from the powers that be that we’ve been working very hard all week, and deserved a bit of a lie-in. At least that’s how I’ve chosen to interpret it.
But just in case you think I took it easy, I have not; first, there was Delta, a dreary Hungarian drama about miserable people living miserable lives in a miserable town.
An intense young man (Felix Lajko) comes home after a long absence. He is taciturn and drinks much brandy. He buys some timber and begins to build a long bridge to an island in the middle of a river. His parents give him the stink-eye, but his sister (Orsi Toth) helps him. Then the siblings start work on a house, where they both will live. Dark clouds gather. Secrets surface, or at least one of them does. Two or three others remain pretentiously unspoken. There is also a turtle.
Delta arrives with a grim buzz – its original star, Lajos Bertok, died midway through the shoot and had to be replaced by Lajko – and its bleak story will surely appeal to the Romanian New Wave, if “appeal” is the right word. But I can’t say I’ve given it a second thought since the lights came up in the auditorium.
Next up was one of the big gotta-sees of the festival: Steven Soderbergh’s four-and-a-half-hour Ché, which was pitched as a one-time-only fusion of the two feature films he’s just completed about revolutionary icon Ernesto Guevara.
The current plan has the movies being released separately later this year as The Argentine and Guerrilla, each feature running about 130 minutes. That’s assuming Soderbergh doesn’t do any further fine-tuning; he was working on these movies right up to the last possible minute – tonight’s sumptuous digital presentation didn’t even have opening titles, just an “intermission” card between the two films.
There is minimal biographical detail and absolutely no backstory on offer, Walter Salles having covered Guevara’s early years in The Motorcycle Diaries just a couple of years before. In these films, Ché is a fully-formed zealot of the people.
The Argentine jumps back and forth between a number of key events in his relationship with Castro and Cuba, using his fiery 1964 speech to the United Nations as a kind of chronological anchor.
Guerrilla picks up a couple of years later, with Ché having assumed his later role as a sort of revolutionary evangelist, training a new generation of freedom fighters in Bolivia.
The Argentine is told in the fragmented, slightly stylized manner of Soderbergh’s Out of Sight and Traffic, while Guerrilla is a much more conventional work, with a linear narrative. Given the level of experimentation in The Argentine, I found myself wondering whether this material was originally supposed to be presented as another chopped-up thread within that film, and then “saved” by turning it into a separate feature.
Here’s the funny thing, though: Neither movie really lets us know Ché Guevara at all. Benicio del Toro plays him as 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 attained a kind of Zen calm in his belief that his movement is sure to outlive him.
Since del Toro is never more charismatic than when he channels his charisma into watchfulness, he’s a fine choice for the role, but the part as written could have been played by a Ché T-shirt that gets progressively more ragged as the story goes on.
Cannes fun fact: Ché Guevara would have considered this festival an obscenity. Seriously, you charge two euros for a can of Sprite, you’re just asking for an armed uprising.