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It's difficult enough to produce a film independently, with all the financial risk such a project entails. That's why few filmmakers choose politically sensitive subjects certain to provoke negative reactions from both ends of the political spectrum. Steven Soderbergh and his producers pursued their Che Guevara biopic for over ten years. They filmed an ambitious epic only to launch it just as the market for independent film fare literally imploded.
2008's Che might be a difficult sell even in a booming film market. It's actually two movies that add up to just over 4½ hours of screen time. It has one notable but not bankable star in Benecio Del Toro, a leading player in Soderbergh's 1998 Traffic. A definite commercial liability is the fact that the film is in the Spanish language, but the choice is obviously correct: to assemble such an authentic recreation of historic events and then have everyone speak English would be a travesty.
We haven't seen a movie of this kind made so well since the 1970s. Briefly showcased for Academy consideration and then released to theaters early in 2009, Che had a disappointingly lukewarm reception, especially for a show that should have been embraced as an artistic sensation. On one of the extras a producer tells us of the closing down of five separate studio independent distributors in the space of one week.
Part 1 of Che was filmed in anamorphic widescreen, as befits the scope of its subject matter. Partially framed by voiceovers from Ernesto "Che" Guevara's memoirs, the movie samples events beginning with Che and Fidel Castro's meeting in Mexico just before their one-boat 1956 invasion of the island of Cuba. The film's chronology then leaps forward several months, skipping the almost-failed landing that saw Che wounded and most of Castro's insurgents captured and executed.
The account of Castro's guerrilla war against Fulgencio Batista is a modern Robin Hood story. Support from the rural Cubans is very high, and the revolutionary underground in Havana links up with them as well. The rebels must turn back civilians volunteering to fight as rebels. Che becomes one of Fidel's commanders in a campaign that grows as it moves across the Sierra Maestra. We see Che functioning as a combat doctor as well as leading his men through some tight spots. Maintaining discipline is difficult, especially when renegade bandits claim to be rebels and terrorize the locals.
Del Toro is an excellent physical match for Guevara. He wisely doesn't portray the commandante as a particularly congenial fellow. Che was definitely a revolutionary's revolutionary and didn't feel the need to be popular on sentimental terms. Actor Demián Bichir's Fidel Castro is equally aloof. They're both the kind of natural leaders that inspire loyalty, but Che reserves his tender moments for when he's dispensing medicine. He reveals a sense of humor only when the pressure is off, in the company of his most respected comrades. The revered Camilo Cienfuegos (Santiago Cabrera) is more easygoing and lovable; followers like young Pombo (Othello Rensoli) provide the expected spirit. Che spends most of his time asking the impossible of his men, yet the rebel solidarity is unbreakable. How do people become this politically committed?
Part 1's time structure occasionally skips ahead to 1964 to show Che delivering a powerful anti-Imperialist speech to the United Nations. Director Soderbergh keeps his camera close to the ground for two hours of jungle fighting, making us feel the pressure of living and struggling against a better-equipped enemy. The film builds to a couple of pitched battles in larger Cuban towns, showing Batista's army disintegrating under the popular rebel onslaught. The movie comes to an abrupt end just as victory arrives in late December of 1958. We aren't shown the triumphal entrance into Havana or the flight of Batista's gangster regime. The first episode instead ends on a character note: Che orders some subordinates to return a red convertible they've stolen from a rich citizen. He's like a hall monitor insisting that the rules be followed on the last day of school, reminding his men that even though the war is over, the social revolution will never end.
Criticism of the film often centers on the decision of director Soderbergh and his writers Peter Buchman and Benjamin A. Van Der Deen to skip over major portions of Che's life. Each Part concentrates solely on a major military campaign. Che detractors don't like the fact that the film doesn't depict the harsh measures of the revolutionary government, or show Che personally presiding over executions, although the commander's stern handling of deserters and renegades in the field is covered. Pro-Castro observers probably resent the absence of references to the grotesque abuses and crimes of the Batista regime that made the revolution inevitable. Fidel and Che are hardcore revolutionaries determined to completely overturn a corrupt system. Their full story would be too big even for a 20-hour movie; Soderbergh wisely limits his scope to his two chosen episodes.
Che Part 2 begins almost seven years later, just before Che Guevara's departure to instigate another revolution in Bolivia. This time around everything is different. Che is running the show as an isolated guerilla in the field. Although this part of South America is closer to Che's own Argentina, the revolutionary is less at home than he was in rural Cuba. Bolivia's government may be small and disorganized, but it is guided by U.S. agents that employ counter-insurgency specialists to train the Bolivian army. In the years that have passed, U.S. foreign policy has covertly committed itself to stopping Marxist revolutions wherever they spring up. The spies sent to Bolivia came from Vietnam and would soon move on to Chile and Argentina.
Even worse, the Bolivian communists that promised to back Che renege on their agreements almost from the beginning. Support in the countryside and through the already organized miners never takes hold. Che and his tiny troupe are suspicious foreigners who don't speak the Indian languages and stick out like sore thumbs. It's only a matter of months before the C.I.A.-guided Bolivians hunt them down.
Soderbergh films Part 2 in a normal widescreen mode, which makes the Bolivia campaign seem more claustrophobic, hemmed in. Desaturated color values make the landscape seem hostile instead of nurturing. Just getting water is a problem in this more elevated, arid environment. A dysfunctional mirror image of the idealistic Cuba campaign, Che's Bolivia campaign is a series of setbacks and frustrations. As more of his confederates are captured and executed Che becomes more intransigent. He stubbornly sticks to plans and strategies that don't work, as if wondering where the magic went. The revolutionary genius goes down to an honorable defeat, defying the C.I.A.'s efforts to discredit him.
Che doesn't cater to any particular audience and is as far from a "feel good" movie as one can imagine. This is no Reader's Digest version of the Cuban Revolution. As so many equate the image of Che with The Devil, there's little point to making a movie that openly advocates a pro-Che position: remember that the writers of Patton played all kinds of games to straddle the line between approval and criticism of a controversial general. The legend of Che Guevara is far more divisive and polarizing. Soderbergh and his collaborators remain true to their convictions, avoiding facile political comment as they sculpt an image of one of the most remarkable men of the 20th century.
Soderbergh films both parts in an engaging "shoot from the hip" style that touches on current fashion only in various B&W interview cutaways, like the New York sequence. His action scenes are remarkably good. The exciting and dynamic battles don't impose action movie clichés onto what were rough and dirty guerilla skirmishes. There are some spectacular clashes with tanks and an impressive train derailment. The latter event shows Che's style of negotiation with Batista's army regulars: just surrender, no conditions. Che and Fidel didn't simply take Cuba, they had to fight long and hard to earn it.
Criterion's Blu-ray of Che Parts 1 and 2 is an extremely satisfying presentation. The HD video is immaculate -- sharp, colorful and a pleasure to watch. The greens and blues of the jungle are so predominant that the sight of a cherry-red automobile in the last moments of Part 1 is positively illuminating. The theatrical experience is still preferable but Home video truly has arrived.
Criterion also offers Soderbergh's movie in a multi-disc DVD set. The extras let us in on all aspects of the film save casting: we'd have liked to learn more about the more obscure members of the cast as well as the involvement of name actors like Lou Diamond Phillips and Catalina Sandino Moreno (the Oscar-nominated star of Maria Full of Grace).
That quibble aside, the extras assembled by disc producer Kim Hendrickson are excellent. Guevara biographer Jon Lee Anderson provides impassioned twin commentaries that offer a wealth of historical context not covered in the films. He starts off Part 2 by asserting that Cuba did a shockingly bad job preparing the ground for Che's campaign in Bolivia. Steven Soderbergh has always been a great contributor to DVD extras and he's very generous with input here. A three-part making-of docu covers every aspect of the development and filming, including the difficulty of securing a distributor. We learn that the movie was filmed in Spain, Mexico and Puerto Rico, and that permission was granted to film at the United Nations just before the main assembly hall was due to be redecorated. Benecio Del Toro talks about pursuing a method to play a man already heavily documented on film and audio recordings.
An exciting trailer (which probably didn't get much play) finishes off Part 1's extras. Both parts carry a number of deleted scenes with additional Soderbergh commentary.
Part 2's extras continue with items of a more historical nature. About half an hour of new interviews with actual revolutionary rebels provide interesting and frequently humorous insights, as when one veteran tells us that Che was, at least initially, resented as an elitist Argentinian with a superior attitude. Even more fascinating is End of a Revolution, Brian Moser's 1968 documentary on the capture and execution of Che, and the kangaroo military trial of Che's ally Régis Debray. Moser has a harrowing audiotape of Army officers showing off Che's corpse. His secretly filmed trial footage captures the moment where the court uses a faked audience disturbance to cut off Debray's only defensive speech.
The featurette "Che" and the Digital Cinema Revolution is essential viewing for anyone contemplating shooting in new formats. Soderbergh, his camera assistant and some folk from the RED Camera Company recount the implementation of prototype cameras to film Che. Soderbergh was so taken by the RED camera's ability to record digital video more or less as the eye sees it that he accepted the system even though it wasn't ready; firmware updates were arriving even as shooting commenced. The featurette also takes us through the complex post-production process, which allowed Soderbergh to retain complete artistic control.
DIsc one contains a fat insert booklet with a thoughtful essay by Amy Taubin. The keep case for Disc two has a folding mini-poster for the movie. 2010 is young, but Criterion's Che is a disc release that will make a lot of top ten lists.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Che Parts 1 and 2 Blu-ray rates:
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