Che split in two

Chronicling the legendary leader's military veneration and the long, hard slog toward his crucifixion

Jan 21, 2009 at 12:00 am

In a recent New York Times Magazine interview, director Steven Soderbergh offered surprisingly little insight on his views of Ernesto "Che" Guevara. Given that he just released a four-and-a-half hour movie about the man, you'd think he'd offer something more profound than admiration for his work ethic.

And so it's hardly surprising that Soderbergh's epic biopic Che, now split into two separate films, does little to elucidate the passions, psychology or personality of its subject. Defiantly anti-genre, the director brings a detached, intellectual approach to chronicling the iconic revolutionary's life, and in the process reinvents the biography genre as a contemplative but uninvolved experience. The result is a film that's easy to respect but very hard to enjoy.

Che: Part 1 begins in 1955 with Guevara (Benicio Del Toro) deciding to join Castro's plan to overthrow Batista, then quickly ping-pongs between his three-year slog (1956-59) through the Cuban jungles and his 1964 appearance at the United Nations. Soderbergh's wide-frame approach to Che's guerrilla campaigns are lush and crisp, deftly juxtaposed against grainy, black-and-white New York interludes, where he's interviewed by a TV reporter, mixes with international elites (never without trademark army fatigues) and addresses the world assembly. It's an interesting attempt to provide some ideological context to the fighting, and connects Che the soldier to his celebrity status, but, ultimately, is determined to keep us at arm's length. Soderbergh has crafted an impersonal film that looks at its protagonist from a distance, decentralizing his role in the narrative. Conventional notions of drama are driven to the margins as skirmish after skirmish is rendered without thrill or emotion. It's a remarkably unglamorous view of warfare that turns combat into an arduous trudge, and all but the most dedicated cineastes will feel like they've plodded through every inch of Cuba's jungles in search of a plot.

Not until the final set piece, an assault on Santa Clara, does the film fully engage. It's a bravura bit of direction as Soderbergh invokes the best of The Battle of Algiers and Full Metal Jacket in his astonishing urban assault. In particular, an eye-level train derailment is handled with understated aplomb. While the conflict sidesteps the visceral urgency of a typical war movie, you can't help but be impressed by the strategic ingenuity of Che's forces. An assault on a church-top sniper's nest illustrates both the revolutionaries' determination and disregard for the people they are struggling to liberate, as soldiers break through the walls of numerous homes to reach their targets.

As Guevara, Del Toro is terrifically mumbly and oddly aloof. It's a pensive and layered performance that does little to reveal how the Argentinian doctor-turned-Marxist revolutionary inspired so many people. You see glimpses of his compassionate side (treating villagers to medical care) as well as his ruthless Stalin-esque tendencies ("The punishment for treason is death") but never learn what motivates him.
There's no arguing that Soderbergh's movie is insanely detailed and ambitious. It's also impenetrably shallow. This is not the portrait of Che the man but rather a landscape of stuff Che did. Think of it as a guerrilla war procedural, one that attempts to re-create for the audience what it must have been like to be around Guevara (rather than know him) during both his rise and — in the second part — his fall. It's a challenging and brainy take that subtly comments on the successes and failures of political ideology but does little to explain the man whose face has been emblazoned on so many T-shirts.

At the film's end, Che leads his troops toward Havana in 1959, declaring "We won the war; the revolution begins now." By skipping Guevara's troubling time in power — the executions he ordered, the banking system he ruined, his break with Castro — Soderbergh undermines any serious discussion of the his iconic status among those who consider themselves revolutionary nonconformists. Worse, he misses the opportunity to let historical facts dismantle some of the myths of Che's heroism instead of relying on art-film pretense.

Che, Part 2: Set over the last year of Guevara's life, the film unfolds in what seems like real time; which is both compliment and complaint. It's an endurance test as Soderbergh uses a documentarian's restraint to capture Che's ill-fated day-after-day attempt to foment revolution and bring communism to Bolivia. Shot at a tighter, more claustrophobic ratio and with a harsh, hand-held sensibility, the director does something quite unique: creates an immediate feel to someone who seems a thousand miles away.

Where Part 1 was a determined march toward victory, Part 2 is marked by despair and shapelessness, much like Guevara's plan to convert Bolivia. Swapping names as he roams the countryside with a band of increasingly demoralized soldiers, Che's desire to remain anonymous does more than hide his identity from authorities; it undermines his ability to inspire. Similarly, Soderbergh shoots the combat sequences as grim, chaotic and swallowed by Bolivia's natural surroundings. In some ways Part 2 recalls the work of Terrence Malick's Thin Red Line, but without the beautifully composed lyricism.

Ultimately, Che goes out, not with a bang, but a whimper. By immersing you in the unglamorous details of his final failed campaign, Soderbergh hopes you will instinctively deduce the nature of Che's inner strengths and weaknesses; thus dispelling his mythological status. But neither Part 1 nor Part 2 has done the necessary groundwork to make us care. Che, for all Benicio Del Toro's careful shading, is too distant a player in his own story. There's no ideological, political or personal perspective. His missteps, great or small, carry no weight or sense of tragedy; they barely elicit curiosity. Guevara may have been compulsively drawn to confrontation, but that desire to cause trouble brings with it no insight or comment. He might as well be any one of the dozens of misguided revolutionaries who sacrificed their lives for a people who didn't trust them. Still, political martyrdom requires that you die in service of your ideals. And while his foot soldiers may have burned with revolutionary zeal, only Che ended up on the T-shirt you can buy at Urban Outfitters.

Too fastidious and remote to embrace, too smart to ignore, some critics have decided to praise Soderbergh's dispassionate and structured approach as groundbreaking; a break from the narrative predictability of Hollywood biopics. But it's a sign of intellectual laziness when a critic lauds a film for what it's not rather than for what it is.

Opens for one week only on Friday, Jan. 23, at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111.)

Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].