Adapted from the famous T-shirt, “Che” is director Steven Soderbergh’s massively long, two part movie about professional revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara. A much more covert revolutionary himself, Soderbergh has shrewdly designed his career around the Scorsese Model of “one for them, one for me”. So an “Oceans” caper with George Clooney will be alternated with something more experimental like “Bubble” or “Full Frontal”. This one is definitely FOR Soderbergh, questionably for me, and probably NOT for most audiences. At least not those seeking the cinematic equivalent of light reading.
“Che” tries to transcend its genre but it’s still clearly a biopic. The main problem of biopics is that a film cannot easily present the totality of a person in such a brief running time. Che Guevara presents an even larger problem as he’s become less of a human being in the passing years than a marketable symbol. It’s a great irony that this communist revolutionary would end up being swallowed up by the capitalist consumer culture itself: to be bought, traded, and sold on t-shirts, mugs, hats and posters. There at least 3 different “Che Guevara” personas: The compassionate Dr. Guevara who tended both sick villagers as well as wounded enemy soldiers, the asthmatic soldier who risked his own life over and over for a principle, and the more controversial Che who at times acted as his own judge, jury and executioner. How does a filmmaker present these contradictions onscreen?
Soderbergh’s first decision is to make a two part film about two separate periods in Che’s life. Both run approximately two hours and are shot in two completely different cinematic styles. Benicio Del Toro is Che and even though the actor won the Best Actor award at Cannes earlier this year, it’s hard to tell if he’s acting or if he’s simply existing as Che Guevara. It’s quite possibly the most ego-less performance from a major actor I have seen since Martin Sheen in “Apocalypse Now”. So much of what is considered the gold standard for “Great Acting” is absent in this “performance” that Del Toro is almost guaranteed NOT to garner an Academy Award nomination.
The first part, known in some quarters as “The Argentine”, crosscuts between Che’s 1964 visit to the United Nations and his involvement in the Cuban Revolution against the U.S. supported government of dictator Fulgencio Baptista in 1959 while the second, “Guerrilla”, takes place almost a decade later and chronicles the ill- fated 11-month campaign that attempted to bring a similar revolution to the South American country of Bolivia. Between the two films some significant material is skipped over, particularly Che’s involvement in the execution and purging of the Batista army and his failed excursion to the Congo.
Cinematically, part one is a kind of revolutionary procedural mixed with a widescreen adventure epic. It’s classically composed in anamorphic widescreen with no “handheld” shots at all. “Guerrilla”, on the other hand, is formatted in 1.85:1, completely shot hand held, and is given a nervous energy in the editing like a paranoid spy thriller in the vein of “The Bourne Identity”.
This switch of styles is completely in line with Soderbergh’s standard “stunt artist” method of filmmaking. He rarely approaches a film without a clear, cerebral concept for it from the aesthetic or technical end. The concept is usually in the form of some kind of challenge to himself as a filmmaker whether from the tight shooting schedule and improvised nature of his weekly HBO series “K-Street” or from an aesthetic challenge like his choice to shoot “The Good German” using only the resources of a 1940s Hollywood production. Here, Soderbergh is using the two parts as mirrors of one another. Formally, he demonstrates the power of the aspect ratio in deciding our relationship to the story. Dramatically, he attempts to create a true portrait of Che by avoiding the pitfalls of editorializing. In both films, Soderbergh limits or eradicates completely the use of the close-up. It’s a political choice to keep the audience from identifying with Che and presenting the man in full body shots emphasizing his relationship to the environment around him. To put it bluntly, the director wants us to see the “big picture”.
Soderbergh’s (non)dramatic approach is a complete rejection of the David Lean-Richard Attenborough styled “cradle to the grave” biopic. Films in this genre often seek out a throughline or psychological spine that “explains” the actions of the historical figure being examined. The idea is to humanize the myth through cause and effect i.e. Gandhi sees Indian oppression first hand as an English educated lawyer and becomes committed to their freedom. Oskar Schindler sees a Jewish neighborhood being raided and is spellbound by a little girl in a red coat which inspires him to try and save as many lives as he can.
This method has as its advantage the power of narrative. The audience wants to understand these relics of history as human beings within the context of a story. We all see our lives as stories, hopefully with ourselves cast not as the extra but as the star. We did this and then they did that which led to these events unfolding. Watching a story play out this way allows us to project ourselves in the shoes of the lead character, to experience the story with them. The disadvantage of creating this emotional, narrative connection is that it’s reductionary. People often have many reasons for why they do what they do. Boiling a human being down to a simple cause and effect is often just another kind of propaganda. To prevent this and to achieve a greater objectivity, Soderbergh presents Che not only from a distance but through veils of language: his answers to questions in New York are heard first in Spanish and then are quickly translated into English by an assistant. They are Che’s words presented to us second hand.
But even with the decentralized form, Soderbergh still makes decisions which challenge objectivity. Why does his portrait of Che not include the third Che mentioned above? The one who was the commander of La Cabana Fortress prison overseeing the executions of those considered to be enemies of Fidel’s new government? Perhaps that would be one Che too many.
As designed by Soderbergh, the characterization is from the outside in — only we are never allowed to get in. The film is at once fascinating and completely annoying as repeated shots of the back of Del Toro’s head make you wish to God that Steven Spielberg would take over and give us just one dramatic dolly shot into his face. But perhaps the most baffling thing of all is what Soderbergh decides to do at the end. After over 4 hours of objective cinema, he decides to depict Che’s death from Che’s own subjective POV. So we get this “Blair Witch Project” shot of a handheld camera falling over as a soldier is executing Che and ending up inches from the dirt floor before fading out. I’m sure the man has his reasons but this sudden over dramatization seems to dissipate the anti-climactic power of watching Che say his famous final words, “Shoot, coward, you are only going to kill a man” and just be seen as a tiny figure in the frame being gunned down, almost randomly. Although formally interesting, the film finally fails to leave much of an impression. At the end of the movie, Che Guevara remains as much a mere symbol on a t-shirt as he was in the beginning.
Steven Soderbergh (director) / Peter Buchman, Benjamin A. van der Veen (screenplay)
CAST: Demián Bichir … Fidel Castro
Rodrigo Santoro … Raul Castro
Benicio Del Toro … Ernesto Che Guevara
Catalina Sandino Moreno … Aleida March
María D. Sosa … Aledita
Othello Rensoli … Pombo
Franka Potente … Tania
Norman Santiago … Tuma
Joaquim de Almeida … President René Barrientos