by Tony Dayoub
In the 8 days since I saw Che, my already high estimation at the sheer audacity of its director, Steven Soderbergh, has only grown. To take such a polarizing leftist figure, and dedicate over 4 hours of Spanish language film to him, despite its audience being primarily made up of a populace that is slightly right of center, is courageous enough. But to do it in such a way that experiments with traditional narrative structure, as he does in Che is bold and not just a little quixotic given the state of cinema today. The version premiering at the New York Film Festival tonight is the “roadshow” version. That is to say, it’s a 268-minute version with a 30 minute intermission between the two parts that make up the film, The Argentine, and Guerilla.
The first part, The Argentine, follows Ernesto “Che” Guevara (Benicio Del Toro), the famous Argentinean Marxist, as he rises up the ranks of Fidel Castro’s revolutionary army in Cuba to eventually lead his own column of troops. The film climaxes with the decisive Battle of Santa Clara, which Che’s troops won, and led to the flight of Cuba’s president, Fulgencio Batista, in January 1959. This portion of the film is told in color, with black-and-white flash-forwards to Che’s December 1964 visit to the United Nations framing the central story.
The Argentine is presented in anamorphic widescreen, with smooth Steadicam tracking shots. If you pair that with the heroic depiction of Guevara and the Cuban revolutionary cause, the film comes off as a very traditional Hollywood war epic. As a viewer, you are placed in the position of rooting for Che, and if you were to only see this part of the film, an objective viewer could find it to be biased on the side of Guevara’s legendary status as a countercultural hero.
Soderbergh paints a quite admirable picture of Che as a political leader and warrior. Guevara, a doctor by profession, is at the fore when it comes to bringing basic healthcare to the poor guajiros living in Cuba’s rural areas. He is dedicated in his pursuit of deserting soldiers who steal and rape in the name of Fidel’s revolution.
The second part, Guerilla, is a very different experience from the first. It follows Guevara in his abortive attempt to foment revolution in Bolivia in 1967. Where the first part has a mainstream flavor, a la Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Guerilla has a more circumspect and abstract view towards Che and his cause. Guerilla is shot mostly with handheld, grainy Super 16mm. Alberto Iglesias’s melodic inspirational music of the first part gives way to a darker minimalist tonal score for the second part. Tonally, it has more in common with the subjective nightmare depicted in Apocalypse Now (1979), where the greater objective of the mission is sacrificed to the basic directive of simply surviving.
Guevara is rarely shown to speak, and in fact, the viewer spends less time with him than looking at him through the eyes of his comrades. Hoping to duplicate his success in Cuba, he tries following the same rulebook in his warfare. But infighting and disloyalty within his ranks, and from the local leader of Bolivia’s Communist Party, Mario Monje (Lou Diamond Phillips), contribute to the breakdown of his organization. Where in The Argentine, Che’s well-reported asthmatic condition is treated as an interesting oddity in the leader, in Guerilla its continued resurgence throughout his campaign is a metaphor for the wheezing implosion of his cause.
Midway through Che, I, a first-generation Cuban American, was disappointed that so much of Guevara’s darker aspects had been ignored. While I believe the Cuban Right is too quick to ascribe villainous qualities to what I think was simply a misguided idealist, I am constantly disappointed to see Che Guevara idolized by the entire world despite some of the atrocities he committed in the name of the Cuban revolution. I was fearful that Soderbergh would present the same heroic perspective on Guevara that previous stories have. The film even looked to be living up to my expectations at the intermission, when only the first half of the film had been screened. But after seeing the second part of the film, I find that my fears regarding this were unfounded. Soderbergh portrays a complex Che in line with what I feel the individual to honestly be, and Del Toro is terrific in the part.
Seeing the film’s two parts presented together helps the film attain what Soderbergh refers to, in the succeeding press conference, as a "call and response" quality. Che's persistence in the lost cause of the Bolivian revolution is rationalized by his near-impossible success in the Cuban revolution. Filmically, to show the "darker" Che and his executions of dissidents, homosexuals, etc. would have been to tip one's hand storywise as to the downward stubborn, and isolated, spiral Che travels on in Guerilla. Besides, like in Lawrence of Arabia (1962), there are enough references to the darker side of this "hero" to present what I thought was a balanced picture. Indeed, there are multiple references to the executions at La Cabaña after the Castro’s victory, primarily in scenes depicting protesters during his UN visit. And his famous homophobia is also referred to, when he calls a deserter no better than a maricón, (the English equivalent would be the expletive, faggot).
But I have to disagree with Soderbergh on this format for presenting the film. I think the film plays better, as two films not one. The films are so stylistically distinct from each other, one classic, the other more formal, and have very few characters that carry over from each other for more than a few minutes. Maybe with their recent rerelease it's all The Godfather (1972) films on my mind of late, but The Argentine reminds me of Coppola's first part, building up Che the "hero", with Guerilla reminding me of Coppola's second part, tearing Che down to some extent, while also serving to deepen the experience and story of the previous part.
Soderbergh hopes to release the film in each major market in its entirety for at least a week, before breaking it up into the two separate films, The Argentine and Guerilla, to be released in January and March, respectively. I don't have enough confidence in the average moviegoer to expect them to commit to a 4-hour presentation. Like in the two parts of The Godfather, what I saw was a very commercial first half, and a very "arthouse" second half. As edited, I feel there is a structural problem with making it one film. The first half has a "call and response" of its own with the UN framing sequence. That is one editorial decision that is not stylistically duplicated in the second half. Are there any other long-form films out there with a similar conundrum that I'm forgetting?
I like the long-form, don't get me wrong, and wish Che could be shown that way. But the reality is that I think it will reach a greater audience the other way. And besides both films being bold and exemplary of Soderbergh's abilities, I think The Argentine could have a real shot at success if marketed correctly, which might lead to interest in the more difficult Guerilla.
Che is playing at the 46th New York Film Festival, at 6:00 p.m. tonight only, at the Ziegfeld Theatre, 141 West 54th Street, New York, NY 10019, (212) 307-1862
This screening will include a 30-minute intermission.
Photo Credit: IFC Films / Wild Bunch / Film Society of Lincoln Center