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Revisit:

Che

Dir: Steven Soderbergh

2008

Revisit is a series of reviews highlighting past releases that now deserve a second look.

Che Guevara has enjoyed, for the lack of a better word, a posthumous iconography unlike any counterrevolutionary insurgent. Call him the reluctant revolutionary, but his image has been taken and appropriated by rebellious middle class youth and fetching loads of money in ways that would leave the Argentinean spinning in his grave 10 times over. Yet, beyond the image, most people probably know very little about Guevara. Sure, they know he helped the Castro brothers implement the Cuban Revolution, but beyond that notorious symbol of his proud, bearded face looking upwards in stern defiance, how much do people really know?

Details beyond the symbol have leaked out into popular culture. Jon Lee Anderson’s Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life, released in 1997, is a massive tome that almost manically detailed Guevara’s life. In 2004, director Walter Salles put out The Motorcycle Diaries, a film that starred Gael García Bernal as the young Guevara traveling around South America. If anything, Salles’ film, based on Guevara’s diaries, put a human face on the revolutionary and documented the seeds of his ideology.

However, it would take director Steven Soderbergh to put together the filmic version of Guevara’s insurgencies in Che, recently released on DVD by the Criterion Collection. Slavish in detail, the nearly five hour film was little seen, but highly praised during its late 2008 release. Broken into two parts, the first chronicling Guevara’s success in Cuba and the second his failure in Bolivia, Che eschews the conventions that water down most biopics to present a verité vision of Guevara in action.

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Soderbergh may be an odd choice to helm a multi-part epic war film, but looking at his oeuvre, the man has directed just about every type of picture there is. However, while the two parts of Che (The Argentine and Guerilla), hew more closely to experimental pictures like The Limey and indie flicks like Full Frontal, they both possess the grandiose sweep of Soderbergh’s crown jewel Traffic.

But those expecting the grandiose sweep of big budgeted bio movies with a cast of thousands will be sorely disappointed. “Unlike David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia or Warren Beatty’s Reds, Soderbergh’s Che is not a hagiography or a romance,” writes film critic Amy Taubin. “It is not a psychological study either, and it doesn’t have a political ax to grind on the left or the right, although it can spur viewers to their own researches on Che, the Cuban Revolution, and related issues.”

What Taubin says is true. Soderbergh, unlike Salles, is not interested in putting a human face on Guevara. Instead, he apolitically presents Guevara’s two revolutions (leaving out his time in the Congo) in a matter-of-fact, almost documentarian frame. We meet hundreds of characters, yet beyond a name we know nothing of them. Even when Che meets future wife Aleida (Catalina Sandino Moreno) there are no soapy love scenes. Aleida joins the Cuban Revolution in the first film and she has five of Guevara’s children in the second.

Soderbergh’s biggest trump card lies in Benicio Del Toro, who not only embodies Guevara, but completely loses himself in the role. The similarities between Del Toro and Guevara are eerie, especially when Soderbergh mixes in archival footage. Though we don’t “get to know” Guevara as we would in a traditional film, there is definite growth in the character from his idealistic vision at the beginning of part one to his fatalistic mission in Bolivia in part two, evidenced by a the film’s haunting final shot.

Che may be a difficult film with its extreme running time, a director who refuses to spoon feed plot points, its dialogue almost completely in Spanish and a fierce look at a man who helped topple imperialism in one country only to be swallowed whole by its tendrils in another. But like the revolutionary himself, Che is an unrelenting, uncompromising struggle against the norm, a refreshing break from the standards of cinema itself which, instead of pandering to the crowd in a lowest common denominator form, goes out with head held high and making not one concession.

by David Harris
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