Guerrilla in the Mist: Soderbergh's Che

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Teresa Isasi

Benicio Del Toro in CHE.

There could hardly have been a stronger reaction at two early screenings of Che last week if Ernesto Guevara himself had shown up. (The old soldier would be 80, if he hadn't been killed in Bolivia in 1967.) In Miami Beach, a few dozen protesters, mostly pensioners who had fled Cuba after the Castro takeover on New Year's Day, 1959, protested the showing of Steven Soderbergh's bio-epic. "The Jewish community would never allow any kind of film about Hitler like this to play here," Abilio Leon, 65, told the Miami New Times. "It's the same for us." A younger man walked past the theater wearing a Che t-shirt — the iconic branding and ironic co-opting of a militant leader by the media-textile complex — but with Guevara's image crossed out and marked with the words: "Cold Blooded Killer."

A few days later, Soderbergh and his star, Benicio Del Toro, presented Che at the Havana Film Festival. The authorities had warned they would not allow the picture to be shown if it was critical of Fidel Castro, and they found nothing objectionable. (One scene included in the original Cannes Film Festival version of Che, showing Castro the commandante in an ambiguous light, was apparently cut.) "The Cuban public gave its endorsement with a strong ovation," reported Granma, the island's official Communist Party newspaper, which hedged its bets by observing that the Castro character (played by Demian Bichir) lacked "charisma and depth." (Behind the Scenes on the set of Che)

There could be two, three, many opinions and interpretations of this strange and daunting experiment, in part because of its length: 4-1/2hrs., quite possibly the longest movie in the history of U.S. commercial films. (Che opens today in New York City as a single film in two parts and an intermission; it will play as separate films when it gets a wider release in Jan.)

Some people will question screenwriter Peter Buchman's narrow focus on two military campaigns — the successful rebellion that led to the taking of Havana, Guevara's disastrous operation in Bolivia nine years later — while ignoring Che's role in mass executions in Cuba after the revolution and his ill-advised adventures in West Africa (where Egypt's Nasser correctly predicted Guevara would be coming in as Tarzan among the natives). Others will wonder at the odd lack of dramatic incident among all the warfare. But you really can't argue with Buchman and Soderbergh about the movie they didn't make; a viewer must accept that they meant these to be bold strategies, and judge what's on the screen.

Our judgment is that the two-part Che is a halfway movie: too expensive (reportedly $61 million) to be relegated to art houses, too stiff and forbidding to appeal to any part of a mass audience.

Say this for Soderbergh: among all contemporary American directors, he has the most restless ambitions. Since his debut film, the indie romantic comedy sex, lies, and videotape in 1989, he has won an Oscar (for directing Traffic), guided Julia Roberts to a statuette of her own (for Erin Brockovich) and launched an action-movie franchise (the Ocean's films). More important, he's let his interests range far and wide, across different genres and different kinds of movies: intellectual science fiction (Solaris), quirky ensemble comedy (Full Frontal) and defiantly obscurantist conundrum (Schizopolis). His films can toady to an audience's prejudices (Erin Brockovich) or virtually say, "Don't watch me" (Bubble, which, to be fair, was very worth watching).

He has the clout to get his projects off the ground and the work ethic to make them quickly: Che is his ninth feature this decade — ninth and tenth, if you count this double feature as two films — not including shorter films and the TV series K Street. And he doesn't just direct his own films, he photographs them (under the pseudonym Peter Andrews). Yet Soderbergh seems defined more by these giant, wayward ambitions than by a discernible authorial personality. If his name were taken off his films, sophisticated viewers would be hard pressed to locate a visual or thematic through-line.

Che Pasa?

Laura Bickford, who produced Che with Del Toro, says that the first part (shot in the 2.35:1 scope ratio) is "more of an action film with big battle scenes," and the second part (shot in standard 1.85:1 wide-screen) is "more of a thriller." Actually, neither tag truly applies. Though Part 1 begins by hopscotching from 1955, when Castro and Guevara meet, to later scenes in Havana and New York, the film is far less interested in explaining Guevara's political importance than in showing how he operated in the two big campaigns; its mantra is process, not context.

(See TIME's top 10 movies of 2008)

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