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In the Jungles
Soderbergh’s guerilla history keeps its distance
by Molly Templeton
CHE: Directed by Steven Soderbergh. Written by Peter Buchanan and Benjamin A. Van Der Veen. Starring Benicio Del Toro, Demián Bichir and Santiago Cabrera. IFC Films, 2008. R. 257 minutes.
The distant feeling that settles over Steven Soderbergh’s Che comes not from Benicio Del Toro, who inhabits the part of Ernesto “Che” Guevara with a calm sort of passion, but from the way the film’s two parts are fixated on process and tactics. A four-hour biography might sound like a labor of love, but this one is a labor of fascination.
In the director’s statement on the film, Soderbergh says, “I was drawn to Che … not only because his life reads like an adventure story, but because I am fascinated by the technical challenges that go along with implementing any large-scale political idea,” and rarely has a director’s explanation seemed so succinct, so spot-on: What lingers from Che is not a commentary on the worth of the man Time magazine referred to as “Castro’s brain,” but the details of guerilla warfare, of ordinary men (and a very few women) scrabbling through varied terrain, in search of a revolution.
Part one begins with several leaps through Che’s timeline, establishing his relationship with Fidel Castro (Demián Bichir), his later prominence in Castro’s Cuba and, mostly, the fighting that led up to the fall of dictator Fulgencio Batista. It’s a story of victory, though little time is spent on the triumph (or the aftermath); once Castro’s forces win, part one ends. Part two slides down the other side of Che’s life, following him into Bolivia, where he works to start a Latin American revolution. Part one watches Che learn to lead; part two watches him fail.
From the very beginning Che sets us at a slight remove from the procedings. At an early scene in Mexico, the camera sits like a shy guest at a dinner table, watching Che as Castro speaks. Later, it takes the place of just one more fighter in the forest. In an unforgettable shot, it gives us a stunning sunrise over Cuba — one so eyecatching, it takes a moment to notice the bodies in the street below. Salon.com described Che as “closer to the naturalistic novel or documentary journalism” than the conventional biopic, and it is; instead of the easy exposition of an introductory-level biography or the heart-involving excitement of a revolution that might sweep you up, Che offers the conversations of men who have nothing to explain, only actions to take, and the pace of a fight that has no guarantee of success, only endless effort.
Perhaps it speaks to its director’s focus on the “how” rather than the “why” — or even, really, the “who” — that it’s hard to feel passionately about Che; its purposeful distance is difficult to cross. But the film is easy to admire, from its performances to its cinematography to its beautiful use of mostly natural light. “I had no interest in proposing what things mean,” Soderbergh said in a December interview. But is it possible to avoid proposing meaning when telling the story of a life? There’s meaning in each thing you choose to include or leave out. Soderbergh, it seems, would like to have included everything. In that sense, Che might even seem short.
Che opens Friday, March 20, at the Bijou. There will be an intermission between the film’s two parts.