January, 2009, Drama

Directed by:Steven Soderbergh

Starring:Benicio del Toro, Franka Potente, and Catalina Sandino Moreno


Part One - - The Argentine

Part Two - - Guerrilla

This reverential, two-part, 4½ hour examination of the 20th century’s most romantic revolutionary enters the Oscar sweepstakes trailing some intriguing questions; should it be considered two separate movies? Director Steven Soderbergh certainly thinks so; the first part was filmed in Spain, with conventional cameras employed in either a fixed position or on a moving dolly. The second part was shot thereafter on locations in Mexico with a different screen format and using “off the shoulder” handheld equipment. Soderbergh refers to this diptych as a “call and response” approach to Guevara’s life and the films have been marketed internationally with neither the requirement nor intention that they be shown together. 

Will Che be classified as a foreign language entry for Oscar purposes because it’s in Spanish - despite being an American film made by the creator of many commercially successful Hollywood productions like Erin Brockovich, Traffic and the Ocean’s 11-13 Trilogy? Will Benicio Del Toro’s performance as Che be eligible for best actor honors once or twice? If the latter, how can the Academy require him to compete with himself in what is essentially the same performance? Ah, the mischief creative filmmakers can get up to…

It’s hard not to praise this labor of love; historically informative, technically superb and featuring a climatic battle sequence at the end of Part One that visually presents a complex military operation with spellbinding excitement, the director and his lead can take credit for fashioning a unique movie-going experience. Acting as both director and cinematographer, Soderbergh deftly shifts The Argentine’s timeline back and forth from the late 50’s to the early-60’s in order to intersperse Castro’s successful guerilla campaign in the mountains of eastern Cuba with Che’s articulate defense of the revolution at the U.N. General Assembly after Fidel was swept to power. This structure gives screenwriter Peter Buchman the opportunity to augment his own dialogue with liberal quotes from Guevara’s memoir, “Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War” and provides Soderbergh the chance to lend further credibility to these sequences by filming them in grainy black and white, mimicking period newsreel footage. 

In contrast, Guerrilla’s style and scope are far more visually limited, underscoring the much more confined scope of Che’s attempts to initiate a successful revolutionary effort in Bolivia two years after the end of Part One. Disguising himself with a new persona and name, Guevara slips into that beleaguered country with Castro’s blessing and covert support to build the type of grass-roots peasant revolt which proved so successful a decade earlier in Cuba. But the response of the Bolivian government and its U.S. allies proved too much for Che; his fledgling efforts ended in an ignominious death at the hands of government forces, coached by American military “advisors” themselves schooled by events then occurring in Vietnam. 

Del Toro doesn’t so much impersonate Guevara as inhabit him; with  calm voice and compelling dignity, the actor literally becomes the Argentine doctor-turned-freedom fighter audiences first encountered 4 years ago in Motorcycle Diaries, a film which traced Che’s transformation from aspiring middle class professional to inspirational proponent of social revolution in the dictatorships of Latin and South America. The reformer arrives full-blown in these present films, thoroughly convinced that successful revolutions must be based on armed struggle. He’s an articulate and sensitive ideologue, someone whose basic decency and genuine concern for others earns him the descriptive “heroic” in the best sense of that word.

Yet that starting point is the Achilles’ heel of Soderbergh’s work, because audiences meet Del Toro’s Guevara as an individual so fixed in personality, values and outlook that no character development need occur. Che attends to the medical needs of his men and the peasants he recruits, makes the case for revolution by pointing out that it’s the only way to achieve basic human dignity for the oppressed and remains unfailingly responsible for the fate of those he leads. He constantly schools and chides everyone along the path to revolution, treating everyone respectfully, friend and foe alike. He follows the commands of his superiors, urges his followers to become literate, punishes those who victimize the oppressed, all the while suffering the same physical challenges faced by those under his command, nursing a chronic case of severely limiting asthma as he does so. 

The end result of this expertly-crafted effort on the part of Del Toro and his director is an act of cinematic canonization which traces the public life of a secular saint without providing a corresponding sense of how he came to be what he was; Del Toro’s Che does battle with the circumstances that surround him, but displays no internal struggle, no example of inner conflict which might provide opportunity for dramatic tension and thus allow audiences to get inside him. He leads, he lectures, (pedantically and often dangerously close to pontification) and he endures…but he doesn’t grow, doesn’t seem to draw from the remarkable circumstances of his life lessons that weren’t there when he first makes his appearance on screen. Motorcycle Diaries showed that growth; neither The Argentine nor Guerrilla takes the time to do so, which makes these beautifully constructed films easy to admire but in the end, pretty hard to like.

The verdict? An obvious labor of love, full of admirable components- but intellectually interesting rather than emotionally compelling.  

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