Starring Benicio Del Toro, Demián Bichir, and Rodrigo Santoro. In English and Spanish with English subtitles. Rated PG.
Jean-Paul Sartre thought that Ernesto “Che” Guevara was the 20th century’s perfect man; not its greatest individual, perhaps, but the one most worthy of emulation. Indeed, it was this very “perfection” that made him such a hard “act” to follow. When he could have been off deep-sea fishing with Fidel Castro, this sometime Cuban government minister preferred to chop sugar cane with illiterate campesinos, his poor asthmatic lungs be damned. And during his many guerrilla campaigns, he was famous for letting prisoners go, not shooting them out of hand. Plunderers and rapists, conversely, were summarily executed. As for long odds, they were for cowards to contemplate, not him.
Watch the trailer for Che.
Thus, if most of Che’s struggles ultimately ended in failure, the fault seems to lie more with us than it does with him.
In his exemplary, two-part biopic of this most international of Argentines, director Steven Soderbergh is well aware of how frightening such austere virtue can be. Although his Che (Benicio Del Toro, perfect for the part except for his weight, with Guevara’s Christlike gauntness having contributed mightily to his posthumous iconography) always acts out of the purest of motives, his presence remains daunting nevertheless. You might entrust your life to this guy, but you’d never ask him out for a beer.
Visually, Part One and Part Two are very different from each other. In Chapter 1, cinematographer Peter Andrews (aka Soderbergh) emphasizes green and brown shades (while playing fast and loose with the laws of scope and standard ratio), while blue holds pride of place in the second half. The same difference applies to structure: the first segues back and forth between shootouts in the Sierra Maestre and a brilliantly faked black-and-white newsreel account of Guevara’s 1964 UN speech, while the second plods stoically toward the great revolutionary’s date with death in the mountains of Bolivia.
Although this 250-minute biography covers a lot of ground, there are many things it leaves out: the young doctor’s fabled motorcycle journey, his epic romances, his still-mysterious activities in the war-torn Congo (yes, it was war-torn even then).
As he proved in both The Limey and his remake of Solaris, Soderbergh can shuck his U.S. identity at the drop of a script, and he does so again here. Better yet, he does a near-perfect job of nailing the nuances of the recent past (giving the lie to that old chestnut about period films always saying more about the times in which they were made than the times in which they are set).
In the past, Soderbergh has usually promised more than he actually delivered. Not here, happily—definitely not here.