Che : Part One

Certificate: 15
Running time: 134 mins
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Starring: Benicio Del Toro, Julia Ormond, Rodrigo Santoro, Demian Bichir
Genre: Biopic, Drama, History
Country: USA/Spain/France

The first of two epic films telling the self penned tale of Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara and in role in the Cuban revolution against Fulgencio Batista lead by the exiled Fidel Castro.  With little more than dedication; the small Cuban force use Guerrilla tactics in their fight against Batista and U.S Imperialism.

There’s few directors operating in Hollywood that have such a chameleon like style that’s all their own like Steven Soderbergh.  His visual palette per film is  unique to itself yet at the same time typical of the man that it’s almost impossible to put your finger on his signature but undeniable once you’ve experienced it.  Where the Ocean’s trilogy trod on the heist movies of the 1960’s and 1970’s (The Hot Rocks, A Man A Woman and A Bank etc), Bubble and The Girlfriend Experience showcased his love of the basics.  Never happier than just being a man with a camera and echoes the joyous love of cinema that was Sex, Lies and Videotape and the more recent Full Frontal.  Sandwiched between Bubble and The Girlfriend Experience, one film released online and on DVD simultaneously alongside it’s cinematic release and another starring a porn star, is arguably the biggest challenge that the Academy award winning auteur has ever had to face.  The capturing of a life that most of the world is already, at least partially, familiar with.

Del Toro’s involvement is one of heavy influence as he serves not just as lead actor but also producer and had it not been for scheduling issues would have had his right hand man character of Raul played by Ryan Gosling.  It’s fitting that we look at Del Toro first.  There’s no denying the role is one that was crying out to belong to him, where Gael Bernal Garcia in The Motorcycle Diaries seemed like perfect casting for the young and impressionable Che, Del Toro is ever inch the experienced leader that can guide the film and audience.  The complexity he brings to the film allows the film to safely sidestep the tricky pitfall of romanticism, there is a lot of dreamy notions of Guevara but Del Toro’s use of charm, passion, compassion and menace each belonging to their own environment creates the most rounded understanding of a man who’s become greater than myth.  Yet he is not without his vulnerability, the weasing physical stature of the asthmatic Guevara is a representation of masculinity that is easily forgotten when dealing with the actions of the man but is one that adds a real fragile humanity to the character and is a startling contrast to the Che of the Guerrilla warfare or Che of the United Nations.  His use of language and tone rings true and is only matched by Bruno Gantz’ performance as Adolf Hitler (in Downfall) for conviction and belief and is a real sign of an actor on his game who has submerged himself in the role of a lifetime.

Demian Bichir (as Castro) is almost equally as impressive, though at the start comes across a little more high pitched and whiny than you might have though Fidel possible of.  As the film progresses Bichir allows his performance to expand and for Castro to grow into the leader that we’re now more than aware of.  By the end of which he’s almost inseparable from the man himself which is a real compliment considering the level of exposure the Cuban leader has been exposed to over the passed fifty years.

The scoring of the film is marvellous, Soderbergh always manages to surprise you visually as well as audibly in every film he does and this is no exception.  The soundtrack of the film is one of elegant simplicity.  Alberto Inglesias’ ear is one of an understanding of the important elements in this tale of one of the most critical points in Cuban history and in understanding that does his utmost to let the score represent an honest depiction that’s emotional yet non-manipulative.

The film has an equally striking simplicity to it.  Free of most of the cinematic stylings that accompany a Soderbergh offering it tells the story straight and looks as though it belongs to Terrence Malick in its beauty.  The use of the black and white narrative in New York at the United Nations is excellent.  Rather than telling a story where the outcome is known and therefore voiding any tension, Soderbergh uses the future events of Guevara and references by the U.S delegate to his “crimes” as a way of setting the film on a head on collision with itself.  Guevara (in colour and in Cuba) is an idealist and Guevara (in Black & White in New York) are at opposite ends of a timeline with differing characters traits but are on a collision course.  This fatalistic approach is one that carries, very heavily, Shakespearian undertones and draws the audience into a narrative to which they all but certainly know the construction of.  The construction of the narrative in this way allows tension to be created and gives the film a sense of tragedy that is difficult to shake (even in victory).

There are a few issues with Che : Part One or (The Argentine as it’s also known).  The supporting characters are broad strokes of individuals, you would even take away from it the sense that several individuals have been merged to create one character, though this is fair enough and understandable/forgivable really.  This is after all one man’s story (two at a push if you include Castro).  The bigger problem is that of pacing.  The film, after an initial settling in period takes a couple of slow, almost stuttering steps in it’s narrative, and is very problem of the entire production.  With Soderbergh’s final cut coming in over four hours long the Studio had little choice (in their eyes) but to break it in half and release two films, later in interviews the director spoke of having enough material from Guevara’s time in New York to make a third film set solely in New York with the joke title Che in the City.  There simply is too much to cover and there are moments where you can see the struggle to cut and trim in the final film.  This seems to be indicative of passion pieces, simply look at Martin Scorsese’s eight hour final cut of Gangs of New York and that will help to clarify why so little of the three hour epic made any sense.

For all it’s issues with timing it’s refreshing to see a film that tries to capture more than a simple snapshot of a man.  In his own way Soderbergh has made a film that’s very anti American (in it's film making) as the narrative isn’t diluted down to the fundamentals and if it was not for the fact that the camera has but one true master (that of protagonist Guevara) could be considered to have more in common with Soviet cinema than his native America.  Che is not unlike the man himself, difficult at points and not without its flaws but worth spending the time to understand.


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