Your NPR news source



Benicio del Toro as Che Guevara

I would encourage everyone to go and see the 4 hour 18 minutes, two-part Steven Soderbergh epic CHE . The film is a conflicting experience. Why Soderbergh, who is a very intelligent filmmaker, wanted to make it might forever remain a mystery. Perhaps the only explanation is that he has enough commercial viability from his other work that he could.

CHE reflects Soderbergh's intelligence in schematically conceptualizing the larger-than life of Che Guevara, the Argentine doctor cum revolutionary who led the Cuban revolution with Fidel Castro, fought for independence in Angola and tried to start an aborted revolution in Bolivia .

Soderbergh sought a solution to the trap of making a film about a truly larger-than-life figure which would be purely either biographical and over-humanize or make Che into a hero. His solution is to focus on historical details of three major episodes in Che's life: the Cuban revolution, the Bolivian campaign, and Che's 1964 trip to the United Nations.

Soderbergh strips the film and the characters of emotion. In the first part of the film, Fidel and Che leave Mexico for Cuba where they eventually overthrow the Battista government. The second part begins as Che leaves Cuba for Bolivia with a small group of fighters, believing that other Bolivians will rally to their cause and help overthrow the Bolivian military dictatorship.

Although there is a lot of action in CHE – it is a revolutionary struggle by insurgents against the military after all – the film is intentionally stripped of dramatic conflict. It is very talky, including long speeches by Che to his compatriots about the need to hang together, about individual sacrifice for the good of the many, about fairness and loyalty, about the revolutionary ethic. The revolutionary struggle in both Cuba and Bolivia is difficult. They face enormous physical obstacles, hunger, lack of ammunition, betrayal.

We of course know the outcome from the start. In part 1 of CHE, Guevara and his compatriots to succeed in the Cuban Revolution, which just celebrated its 50th anniversary. . In part 2, after a disastrous campaign, Che  willl eventually be betrayed, injured and executed in Bolivia .

In the film, the role of Che is played by Benicio del Toro. For del Toro, the greatest accomplishment is just the pure physical endurance. He is in almost every scene, for over four hours. He is not given much in terms of character to hang onto. We know, in part 2, that Che is married and has 5 kids whom he left behind in Cuba . But we have to rely on what we've read or seen elsewhere, or seen, perhaps in Walter Salles Jr.'s MOTORCYCLE DIARIES which covered Che's conversion from a young middle-class doctor to a revolutionary committed to fighting inequality and injustice.

This is not a film filled with Stanislavsky-inspired performances plumbing depths of character; it is a scientific exploration, a technocratic riff, like jazz played by a physicist.

Though the American role in training and equipping the Bolivian military which ultimately captures Che is shown and acknowledged by the film, Soderbergh clearly doesn't want to grind any political ax – not even this one.

It's clear that Soderbergh “lived” with Che for a long time. The film was first shown at the Cannes Film Festival, with brown bag sandwiches served between the two parts. The first part was subsequently re-edited by Soderbergh. The post-Cannes Film Festival headline in the New York Times called Soderbergh an “epic provocateur.” This is misleading. The distance Soderbergh builds between the subject and the audience is simply not radical enough to make the film compelling. It is neither subversive nor “revolutionary” enough – it remains rooted in traditional narrative storytelling forms. So what we get is less art, more lecture. The only element of genius is that Soderbergh was lunatic enough to undertake the film in the first place.

Milos Stehlik's commentaries reflect his own views and not necessarily those of Facets Multimedia , Worldview or Chicago Public Radio.


More From This Show