Monday, 12 January 2009

REVIEW: Che: Part One

Steven Soderbergh’s Che Guevara epic consists of two parts: the first, The Argentine, to be released in January and the second, The Guerrilla, to be released in February. It is therefore something of an ‘event’ movie and among other things (it was applauded at Cannes) I went out of my way to check it out.

Part One was everything I expected from Soderbergh and I was met with a gritty, artistic and understated film. Soderbergh is a director who will inter-cut scenes at random, use close-up shots unnecessarily and show scene-after-scene of mumbling subtle performances. That doesn’t mean it is a bad film but beware that he has purposely gone for an ‘arty’ look. Then again, perhaps that is fitting for the Trotsky icon that is Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara.

Regardless of its style, it is a captivating film. I knew very little about Guevara before this film and I still know very little about him now. But Soderbergh does give you a feel for the man behind the Alberto Korda silhouette. For instance, did you know that Guevara suffered from severe asthma? Thought not.

Obviously, if you want a strict character insight into Guevara then other films can help you out (The Motorcycle Diaries) however this is a selective biography. Similar to how Michael Mann’s Ali chose a significant period of just ten years of Ali’s life, these two films focus on Guevara’s rise in Part One (liberating Cuba) and Guevara’s demise in Part Two (failing to liberate Bolivia). The film therefore depicts the journey of Castro’s guerrillas, led by Guevara, marching across Cuba fighting Batista’s armies in an attempt to overthrow the dictator. This is less a standard biopic then and more a revolutionary’s answer to Saving Private Ryan

…although much less exciting. There are a few skirmishes and the final Battle for Santa Clara is worth the wait - especially when they have to sledgehammer through five houses in order to reclaim a Church from snipers - but this is a deliberately-slow, thoughtful film. The memorable moments are underplayed and therefore this is not the exciting war film some people might expect. In fact, it’s not particularly comfortable viewing: it is overlong, subtitled and it sporadically cuts away to black-and-white footage at the United Nations. These do not compliment the story but rather feel like being dragged away from the playground to the classroom in the midst of a good game.

In short, you need to be in the right frame of mind to watch this film.

Nevertheless, the cast are brilliant (you can’t imagine anyone but Del Toro playing Guevara and he won Best Actor at Cannes) and if you are in the mood for something different then it is worth checking out. And remember, the two parts of Che were originally envisaged as one five-hour film, so if you consider that this is the first half of a movie then Soderbergh has just been warming the audience up for its thrilling second half. This is certainly very promising and means that the tragic fall of Guevara this February could be a very kinetic cinema ride indeed.


And in other news: when I bought my ticket, the dude behind the counter said: “Are you aware that this film is subtitled?” And I was like: “I should hope so, my Spanish is a little rusty.” Since when did it become necessary to warn people that they might have to do some reading? Are people actually walking out of films because they have to read subtitles? Mental!

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