Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Part One: Written by Peter Buchman, based on the memoir "Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War" by Ernesto "Che" Guevara
Part Two: Written by Peter Buchman and Benjamin A. van der Veen, based on the Bolivian Diary by Ernesto "Che" Guevara
Benicio Del Toro as Ernesto Che Guevara
Rodrigo Santoro as Raúl Castro
María Isabel Díaz as María Antonia
Catalina Sandino Moreno as Aleida March
Demián Bichir as Fidel Castro
Rated R for some violence.
For a biopic, "Che" is not conventional in its style, and for that it ends up being quite refreshing. The tired out formula of various biographical films coming out during award seasons, telling stories of very different people who all seem to have the same exact melodrama. Skipping the bulk of life, Steven Soderbergh opts to be painfully detailed on two separate events in the life of Che Guevara, at the expense of character development or even adding dimensions to the real life figure of Che. I walked into this movie knowing very little about the revolutionary, and I walked out almost knowing less, a problem considering the movie runs at nearly four an a half hours.
The deal is this: Steven Soderbergh decided to take his 257 minute epic, and divide it into two separate halves. Coming in January, the film will be released in its two parts, but for a limited run in New York City and Los Angeles, the entire film will be shown in a special "Roadshow Edition," which runs both halves with an intermission in the middle. I suppose this was done to either make the studios a little extra money, or two give audiences a choice at which format they wish to view this.
Soderbergh starts the film with a rather brutal transition, trying to make as much as an "overture" in the tradition of old epics of the past. He shows a map of Cuba and Bolivia, flashing the names of the various cities within the two countries. The first portion of the film introduces Che as he goes into Cuba with eighty rebels, all under the eyes of Fidel Castro, with hopes to overthrow the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista in 1956. Ideally, this would be the part of the film which charts Che's rise to power, as he starts as a doctor that joins the cause and ends up becoming a strong leader for the rebellion. Instead, Soderbergh shows long and drawn out scenes of the men trumping through the jungles, where Che promises various villages peace, education, and land. From time to time there is a military battle, leading up to the taking over of a large hotel somewhere in Cuba.
Spliced in between the first half are scenes set in 1965, where Che is giving a speech at the United Nations, and also being interviewed for a magazine. Done in a stark black and white, and often used to highlight and run parallel to the images that take place in 1956, these segways are some of the closest in the entire film to following several conventional biopic methods. The black and white somewhat seems like a gimmick, and Soderbergh even tries to be edgy by using extreme close ups and out of focus images during them. It all leads up to the taking of Cuba by Che and Fidel, ending on a rather humorous note that really makes one anticipate the next part.
By the time the thirty minute intermission is complete, the second half takes a completely different turn, flashing ahead after the Cuban Revolution. After Che disappeared, he reappeared in disguise in Bolivia to organize a small group of Cubans to spread out his ideas to all of Latin America. It is yet another two hours of trips through the jungles, meshed with a few celebrity cameos. There is Franke Potente as one of the members of the rebellion, and in perhaps the most head-scratching cameo in recent memory, Matt Damon as a missionary who tries to strike a deal with Che. It lasts for just about a minute, and not only takes one out of the film (if you are even swept away in it during hour number three), but is also obvious Soderbergh, using his friends to form yet another incestious production. The Bolivian episode is an obvious failure, ending with the capture and execution of Che (one of the few scenes in the film that was very well done).
It is not the length of the film that I had a problem with, but the content that Soderbergh chooses to put within it. At four and a half hours, and with such a prominent and lasting figure as Che Guevara, one could have created a very extensive and absorbing biopic, but it never seemed liked Soderbergh knew much about the figure he was making a film about. Rumor has it Stanley Kubrick read over a hundred books on Napolean in an effort to create a massive film about him, and he never even was able to make it. I am reminded of the marketing campaign for one of Soderbergh's last films "Bubble," which he dubbed "Another Steven Soderbergh Experience." It is this mindset that Soderbergh seems to go into this film, where he is trying to make a sweeping epic because he never made one of those before. As if he has a checklist of film genres and types that he is slowing going through. There is really not much ambition in this film, which is needed in creating a complete and extensive biography of the man.
The bulk of the film consists of the trips through the jungle, and not much is given to exploring the man himself. Even his marriage to Aleida March, played by Catalina Sandino Moreno, is a mere footnote throughout, having her as a small character in the first half and then having her married to him for a few minutes in the second. The running time begins to seem almost intentionally padded just to increase the minutes. If deserved, I would not have minded the many minutes invested in it, but the entire last two hours seem like padding.
As Che, Benicio del Toro, who won the Best Actor at the Cannes Film Festival last May, is not bad, but certainly nothing special. He undergoes an impressive physical transformation, and probably could have had more to sink his teeth into with the character if he actually had a script to work with. However, the real star of the film ends up being the the jungles themselves, and this is a very beautiful looking movie. I would credit most of this to the natural beauty of Cuba and Bolivia and other jungles in Latin America. I also was fond of the music by Alberto Iglesias, which was often times haunting and forboding, especially during the "overture" of the second half.
There is interesting content buried somewhere in "Che," and there is even more interesting content that was not even written or filmed. Steven Soderbergh was clearly not invested as much as he could have been with this film. Given so much to work with-the controversy of the figure, his prominence throughout history, and even the several actual accomplishments that he had-its a shame to see how he wastes four and a half hours with repetition, and solely with two events, however large they might be. I somewhat saw "Che" twice-the first time I continued to fall asleep, and decided I needed to see it a second time to give it a justified review. But sadly, the little bit I saw the first time in-between my slumbers (not brought on by the movie, just pure exhaustion) worked as a warning for the lost effort the movie ended up being. Not the worst movie of the year, or even close to being anywhere near that list, but clearly the movie of the year that could have been.