My original intention had been to split these two over two days and discuss them separately, but since I was off work today anyway I figured I should go for a oner. Wish I’d had some rum though. Purely for ambience of course.
The Bolivian Army hates foreigners.
The story of Ernesto “Che” Guevara, told across four hours, twelve years, four countries and two wars.
Strictly in terms of what is shown on screen, this film may be one of the smallest “epics” I have ever seen. As befits a guerilla campaign, the fighting is never more than what you’d consider a skirmish, and most of the larger events of the time are merely reported over the radio. I would still class it as an epic though, on sheer ambition alone. Here is a film that purports to tell the real story of a man mostly known to this generation as a face on a t-shirt. Does it succeed? Yes, it does. Is it a masterpiece of cinema? Ask me again in five years.
Aside from the framing device of an interview he had with Lisa Howard in New York in 1964, Part One opens with a dinner party in Mexico City in July 1955, where Guevara and Fidel Castro first met, and where Che agreed to be a part of the Cuban Revolution. This half of the film (by the way, from here on out I’ll be referring to these two parts as one complete film, in two halves – as it was intended by the filmmakers) plays out in this non-linear fashion, jumping between the developing revolution in Cuba and Che’s visit to New York where he was interviewed extensively as well as addressing the UN. Soderbergh differentiates these two time periods stylistically: Cuba is shot in glorious colour with a mix of static long shots and close handheld work, while New York is black and white, seemingly using period-appropriate film stock to create the impression that you could be watching actual documentary footage of Guevara’s real trip to the Big Apple. With most other directors I would have assumed they created that look in post-production, but Soderbergh? He is particular enough to maybe have done it for real, on vintage 16mm cameras and everything.
Part Two on the other hand is fully chronological. Starting in 1967, it shows Che’s departure from Cuba to lead his doomed attempt to bring the revolution to Bolivia, right up to his capture and death at the hands of the army. Sorry, spoilers. This part is visually straight down the middle as well. Other than a gradual shift in the colour palette as the film progresses (things start off well lit and full of colour but get darker and more muted as the days go on) there are no obvious directorial flourishes. Saying that though, I don’t think I’ve ever seen an execution filmed from the executee’s POV before.
The time jumps and all that stuff in Part One serve to amplify an optimism in the characters and events being shown. Everything is brighter, and I don’t mean just in the “well-lit” sense. Of course the fact that it ends in victory helps the mood somewhat, even with the frequent hardships that we see. The final battle sequence through the streets of Santa Clara is wonderful, with the same occasional flashes of dark humour that have been dropped in throughout the film just carefully enough to humanise the revolutionaries without diluting the violence inherent in their struggle. In contrast, Part Two is the opposite in almost every way. This is two hours plus of Che being metaphorically kicked in the ass, over and over again. That’s not to say it isn’t a captivating film, because it is. All 257 minutes of it. Confession time: I had planned to watch both parts in one sitting but I had to go out this afternoon, so there was about a five hour break in the middle. It may not have been quite so captivating if I hadn’t stayed late in bed.
Falling as it does between the whimsical lark that was Ocean’s Thirteen, and the small-scale experimentation of The Girlfriend Experience, Che is a prime example of Steven Soderbergh’s versatility as a filmmaker even if it hadn’t been such an achievement in it’s own right. Benicio Del Toro just inhabits this role completely, both as a fresh-faced young medic in Mexico, and as a grizzled veteran and leader of men. The entire cast deserve plaudits in fact, in particular the non-native Spanish speakers like Franka Potente and Matt Damon (in his single scene as a German priest).
So, that’s Che Guevara and Butch and Sundance that the Bolivians have knocked off. Not a good record.