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Cannes Dispatch: Part Five: An online exclusive

An online exclusive

Benicio Del Toro in Che


Thursday, May 22, 2008

CANNES, France—“This had better be good, Steve,” yelled out a voice seconds before the start of the press screening of Steven Soderbergh’s Spanish-language, two-part, four and a half hour study of revolutionary icon Ernesto “Che” Guevara.

The running time for Che mandated the festival premiere the official screening and press screenings simultaneously. With the press screening held in the smaller Debussy Theater, many members of the press fearful of being shut out, including your correspondent, waited in line for up to two hours. There was an intense struggle to snatch the last remaining seats. The $62 million project, some 10 years in the making, was financed entirely by the French sales agent Wild Bunch.

American iconoclast Terrence Malick originally intended to direct the project. Malick wrote his own script and began casting and preproduction when he interrupted it permanently to make The New World. Soderbergh previously collaborated on Traffic with Che producer Laura Bickford. With Bickford and actor Benicio Del Toro, Soderbergh inherited the project. He commissioned Peter Buchanan to write the script. Jon Lee Anderson, a staff writer for The New Yorker and author of the superb biography Che: A Revolutionary Life, worked as the project’s historical consultant.

When Soderbergh won the Palme d’Or for his feature debut, sex, lies and videotape in 1989, he famously observed in his acceptance speech: “I guess it’s all downhill from here.” Soderbergh has made an astounding 18 features since then, in addition to various shorts and divertissements. His more ambitious examples of outré art, like The Good German or more questionably, his remake of Andrei Tarkovsky’s canonical Solaris, suggest a driving, even blunt intensity to constantly work and try out ideas.

Che is an unorthodox and highly paradoxical piece of work. Like many friends that I spoke with, I was troubled by the historical elisions of Che’s darker impulses (particularly his megalomania, his murderous activities and repression of basic human rights to Cuban’s artists and intellectuals). Eventually all that is available is the work in front of us

On that level, Che is a highly impressive achievement. It delivers on several different levels, frequently subverting classical drama or storytelling. It relates only fragments of a complicated life, but the director expertly collates these incidents and dramatic episodes in connoting a larger portrait. Soderbergh produced Todd Haynes’ Bob Dylan work, I’m Not There, and both filmmakers express an obstinate refusal in going against the grain. Like I’m Not There, Che is a fundamentally expressive and elective piece on subjective forms and contentious lives.

The form of Brazilian filmmaker Walter Salles’ The Motorcycle Diaries echoed Shakespeare’s Henry V in traversing how his travels through Latin America revolutionized the asthmatic middle-class introvert. Che contains only a fleeting reference to the Bay of Pigs, only briefly mentions the American trade embargo and never touches on the Cuban Missile Crisis or the disastrous consequences of the country’s political and ideological attachment to the Soviet Union. Both films verge closer to war movies than intellectual art films.

Presented here without credits, both parts run about 132 minutes. With the 20-minute intermission, the entire work ran nearly five hours. The films bracket two distinctive periods of the revolutionary’s life: The first part, tentatively titled "The Argentine," is the more longitudinal piece. The movie’s second part, called "Guerilla," shows the influence of Malick (Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line).

Dramatically, the complete work is more narrowly defined, concerning itself with Che’s disastrous two-year campaign to export his brand of Marxist guerilla theology to Bolivia. The campaign was doomed to failure, given the country’s pronounced hatred of foreign intervention and the guerillas’ inability to gather popular support.

The opening section moves sinuously from Cuban general Fulgencio Batista’s 1952 seizure of power to Che’s perversely showboating 1964 New York trip where he made a combative United Nations speech. (The work is framed by a television interview with an American reporter.) Soderbergh photographs his own films under the name Peter Andrews. The New York sequences are shot in highly textured black and white, evoking a newsreel style. The director interpolates graphic headlines and deploys datelines as transitions to establish both text and context. Soderbergh shot the movie with a state of the art digital camera called Red. “The [camera] sees the way I see,” Soderbergh says.

The imagery of the color material has an astounding richness and clarity. The first part is shot in 2:35 widescreen; the second, more interior and intimate section, is shot in 1:85. Stylistically the digital imagery achieves a tremendous immediacy and vitality. The verdant jungle foliage and mountain landscapes have a vertiginous jutting that builds momentum.

Del Toro’s performance is perceptive. Che is portrayed as a thrill-seeker and a show-off whose peculiar genius for competence, flamboyance and natural leadership abilities brought an immediate legitimacy and tenacity to the rebels’ power. The revolution triumphed not because of ideology, but through its powerful hold on the rural underclass to the professional middle classes.

Che’s talent is ambidextrous — at various times he's a writer, an organizer, a guerilla medic and tactician. In one of the more striking military operations portrayed in the film (an attack on a government barracks), Che becomes so upset that the man operating the heavy grenade launcher twice misses his target. He eventually yanks the device from the other man and promptly scores a direct hit.

The first part ends with a sustained section documenting the street fighting in Santa Clara. Part two, which counts the days (up to 341) of Che's failed campaign, is more concentrated. Like Malick, Soderbergh suggests his breakdown as a violation of nature, witnessed here through the landscapes or the guerillas’ watery tombs razed by government police. Stylistically, "Guerilla" is more daringly conceive, and the use of color — especially the stunning early morning blue light — has an intoxicating feel.

After the screening, questions immediately arose whether the version that played here is going to be the completed theatrical release. “I like it quite a bit, but I think [Soderbergh] made it for the wrong audience,” said a colleague. Cannes has a privileged history of showing works in progress, from Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas and Wong Kar-wai’s 2046. Further time and assessment is necessary to judge Che's place. Everybody should have the right to see the Cannes version and reach their own conclusions.





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