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Review: Che

History lesson
By MICHAEL ATKINSON  |  January 13, 2009
2.5 2.5 Stars


VIDEO: The trailer for Che

Che | Directed by Steven Soderbergh | Written by Peter Buchman and Benjamin A. Van der Veen | With Benicio del Toro, Demián Bichir, and Rodrigo Santoro | IFC Films | 257 minutes
Shouldering both the buzz aura of supercool — an ambitious, whole-hog, four-hour-plus bio-pic of Che Guevara, c'mon — and the trickle of numbed critical response from the Eurofests, Steven Soderbergh's Che looks to be 2008's most baffling top-shelf release. On one hand, it seems overdue and, for a filmmaker as talented and self-aware as Soderbergh, un-fuck-up-able. On the other, it appears to have been constructed to subvert every reason a filmgoer might have for wanting to see it.

It doesn't help that Che has been announced as being both a one- and a two-part feature. But however you see it, it's something of a noble slog. Soderbergh's primary experimentation here is not with David Lean–ish length but with tone. Bio-pic crises, dramatic epiphanies, romantic subplots, psychological insights, ironic sociohistorical markers — all of this is elided. Soderbergh's express interest was in the process of the historical moment — how do revolutions happen? Incidents avalanche by: battles, minor confrontations, instructions from Castro, disciplinary actions, speeches, training regimens in the jungle, characters arriving as rebel inductees. The nuts and bolts of the Cuban revolution, for the first half/film, are intercut with black-and-white footage of Guevara's 1964 United Nations sojourn; the second half/film, which recounts the disastrous Bolivian revolution where Guevara met his Waterloo, sticks closely to the chronological record. It's a stupefying, daring strategy: Soderbergh has built the narrative as a series of expository scenes, the type of unexciting informational moments we'd expect between the sequences of powerful drama and revelation. Even the battle scenes, which can be thrilling, have a check-off-the-timeline feel, as if somehow a historical litany could by itself tell us the whole story about Guevara and the revolution.

Given the bankrupt reflexes of the bio-pic genre, you can see why Soderbergh has sought out an anti-T-shirt version. Che is at least admirable for its defiance. But though the film may sound Rossellinian in its distanced observation of history, it hardly broaches the rigorous visual strategies of the Italian master. Che's visual choices — jungle, village, mountainside, Cuban city — stop at standard-issue hi-def eloquence, respectful and orthodox. Soderbergh, who also served as his own cinematographer, has displayed a creative eye (think Solaris, Out of Sight, and Kafka), but Che avoids visual expressiveness, just as it perversely ignores drama, in dealing with a historical character and moment inherently filthy with both.

The movie's politics can be read as sympathetic to insurrectionists, but the structural æsthetic is numbing and leaves the actors in a lurch. Whereas most of the supporting cast fume and snort like rushed TV actors (particularly Demián Bichir, who plays Castro as if he spoke privately in the same arch manner he delivered speeches), co-producer Benicio del Toro is left adrift in his own movie. We presume that del Toro committed to the role in his ur-Method manner, but though you can sense his immersion in Guevara's persona, virtually no narrative development allows him to act. Che watches, listens, lectures, runs through the jungle, ad nearly infinitum, but the performance never escalates beyond the reactive. How could Guevara have been this dull as a man? Without dramatic engagement, and despite the historical detail, there is little to keep you from regarding del Toro as del Toro playacting in costume. Soderbergh stated it clearly himself at Cannes: "The bottom line is we're just trying to give you a sense of what it was like to hang out around this person. That's really it." Take him at his word.

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