Che (The Criterion Collection)
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On November 26, 1956, Fidel Castro sails to Cuba with eighty rebels. One of those rebels is Ernesto "Che" Guevara, a young Argentine idealist and doctor who shares a common goal with Fidel Castro - to overthrow the corrupt dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. Che proves himself an indispensable fighter, and quickly grasps the art of guerrilla warfare. As he throws himself into the struggle, Che is embraced by his comrades and the Cuban people. THE ARGENTINE tracks Che's rise in the Cuban Revolution, from doctor to commander to revolutionary hero. After the Cuban Revolution, Che is at the height of his fame and power. Then he disappears, re-emerging incognito in Bolivia, where he organizes a small group of Cuban comrades and Bolivian recruits to start the great Latin American Revolution. The story of the Bolivian campaign is a tale of tenacity, sacrifice, idealism, and of guerrilla warfare that ultimately fails, bringing Che to his death. Through this story, we come to understand how Che remains a symbol of idealism and heroism that lives in the hearts of people around the world.
Lauded for its documentary approach yet also experimental in nature, Steven Soderbergh's Che spends over four hours chronicling different phases in the revolutionary career of Che Guevara (Benicio Del Toro). In Che: Part One, the successful Cuban campaign is covered, interspersed with glimpses of Guevara's camera-ready visit to New York in the Castro Revolution's aftermath. This section can't help but approximate the outline of a battle epic, despite Soderbergh's anti-romantic approach, and ends up being a stirring account of guerrilla action (it also has the bonus of Demian Bechir's uncanny impersonation of Fidel Castro). Che: Part Two jumps ahead to Che's grueling later experiences in Bolivia, where he traveled to aid the homegrown insurgents but found much less fertile ground than in Cuba. Here Guevara is--figuratively and visually--lost in the jungle, as Soderbergh reduces the characters and story to a series of factual sequences laid end-to-end. It's not Dr. Zhivago, that's for sure, although it does last longer. By spotlighting two specific sections of Che's life, Soderbergh sidesteps the less heroic aspects of his struggle, including the executions that followed the Cuban Revolution (omissions that brought criticism from anti-Castro Cubans). But the film's approach is so intentionally flat that such criticisms are almost not worth the trouble. And while Benicio Del Toro sinks into the role of the asthmatic jungle fighter with total commitment, his Guevara is an elusive protagonist, seen from a distance except for the scenes in which he's being turned into a celebrity during his NYC interlude. In short, Che is a very intriguing idea for a movie, and not a terribly engaging film. --Robert Horton
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Top Customer Reviews
Benicio Del Toro (Traffic, 21 Grams) plays Guevara with an uncanny resemblance and a powerful presence. We meet him in Mexico City in the 1950s where he meets a group of Cuban exiles plotting the overthrow of the US-backed dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. It is here that Guevara meets Fidel Castro (played by Mexican actor Demian Bichir) who lectures him on the dire conditions for Cuba's poor and convinces him to join the revolutionary expedition sailing back to the island on the famous Granma boat. Soderbergh intercuts the jungle campaign in Cuba with black and white passages capturing Guevara's 1964 visit to the UN General Assembly where he delivered one of the most blistering anti-colonial speeches of the era. This sections feel large in scope while the Cuban scenes feel very intimate as Guevara trains guerrillas, engages in firefights with Batista's troops and brings medical services to poor villages where many people had never seen a doctor before in their lives. Soderbergh captures everything with a great air of authenticity in the accents, settings, locations and anyone who has visited Cuba or the Caribbean will immediately recognize the unique sense of humor expressed by the characters. It is in this first half where we see Che taste victory as the Cuban Revolution spreads and culminates in the battle of Santa Clara. Batista falls and the experience convinces Che of the legitimacy of armed struggle. The second half of the film follows Che into Bolivia, a more arid landscape with an indigenous majority population living under another brutal regime. The Bolivia episode is the other side of the coin from the Cuban Revolution, here the struggle to spread a doctrine of armed revolution runs into various roadblocks due to many conditions including culture clashes, inter-clashes within leftist circles and the heavy involvement of the CIA in tracking down Che's expedition. The Bolivia episode feels more fast-paced than Cuba, but also features a stunning attention to detail. The episode ends with Che's execution at the hands of the Bolivian army and CIA, and in its somber tone, we can still see how the man transformed into legend.
"Che" is first and foremost a document, an attempt by Soderbergh to chronicle in as much detail and realism as possible the EXPERIENCE of being a guerrilla in the field, the long hours of debate and boredom punctuated by moments of violence and danger. Like "The Battle Of Algiers" the film feels almost like a documentary instead of as a dramatic narrative. Those looking for a more romantic, adventurous trip should stick with Walter Salles' excellent "The Motorcycle Diaries" about Guevara's journey through Latin America as a young medical student. Soderbergh's film is more challenging because it doesn't provide easy answers or plot points, it forces the viewers to think for themselves and form their own opinions and conclusions. The film doesn't make bold statements about the Cuban Revolution or socialist politics, and yet it forces the audience to ponder political theories and history more than the average, more straight forward biographical movie. "Che" provides a more challenging discussion about revolutionary politics than "Braveheart," or Andy Garcia's right-wing "The Lost City" which provided a more spoon-fed, almost tabloid take on the Cuban Revolution and its participants. Does this mean the film is simply too academic? It depends on what you're looking for. Che Guevara is one of those historical characters that has become such an icon or symbol that many people wear the t-shirt without ever bothering to read anything about the man, this goes for both those who admire him and those who hate him. Even those who are just used to seeing Fidel Castro as an evening news item waving at crowds in his green fatigues will see the icon stripped down to a guerrilla commander trying to strategize and reconcile various parties, groups and opinions about how to carry out a revolutionary change in government. One value of the script by Peter Buchman is that he doesn't reduce these men to just historical titans spewing grand speeches, we instead see the bare bones of politics and how behind the flashy posters and berets, Guevara and Castro were also debating the hows and whens of everything from land reform to foreign policy.
The look of the film is toned down and yet very lush. Soderbergh used the Red One camera for both episodes of "Che" and the result is very impressive, a visual clarity with some of the same grain and depth as film. There are grand vistas in the Cuba chapter, with lush sequences in beautiful jungle terrains. The Bolivia section looks arid and cold, with rich shadows evoking a campaign headed for a tragic end. It was a wise choice to film the UN sequences in black and white film stock, they feel incredibly authentic.
Without a doubt "Che" features the best performance ever delivered by Benicio Del Toro who fully embodies the character, the fact that he did not recieve an Oscar nomination is a complete travesty. He brilliantly changes looks, physique and switches from a man pumped with the idealism of a born rebel to a man struggling in a terrain that is not bending to his will. He never overplays Guevara and brings a real human dimension to a role which could so easily be overdone. Demian Bichir is impressive as Castro, masterfully capturing the famous accent, the mannerisms and yes, the cigar stance.
"Che" is the kind of bold experiment many directors would be afraid of attempting. It breaks many rules and doesn't bow to the demands of cheap commercialism, and yet is always fascinating. This isn't the kind of movie to watch in order to avoid reading the biography, instead it is the kind of movie that might force you to go out and seek further reading on the man. Both sections come here with brilliant commentary tracks by journalist Jon Lee Anderson, author of the great biography "Che: A Revolutionary Life." Anderson provides excellent analysis and historical information that adds to the fascination of the movie, for those who find it hard to grasp the movie at first, the commentary tracks are of great help. In the DVD extra features Soderbergh laments that maybe the time for a movie like "Che" has already passed because nobody actually DISCUSSES films anymore, people appear to simply seek escapism and nothing more. This is certainly not a film for "Avatar" fans, or at least for those who ONLY like movies in that vein, but for the curious with an eye for excruciating detail, "Che" is an experiment worth checking out.
But like most biographical movies, it's something of a mixed bag. Visually atmosphere and low-key in style, the two halves of "Che" focus on pivotal slices of Guevara's life, with an amazing lead performance by Benicio Del Toro as the titular revolutionary. Unfortunately, it's also a very slow-moving affair that brushes past some of the more unsavory facets of Che Guevara's life and personality... and ironically many of the positive ones.
Part 1: In the 1960s, Guevara (Benicio Del Toro) is in New York City for a UN conference, being interviewed by a US reporter about his viewpoints as a guerilla leader and revolutionary. Then the narrative jumps back a decade to when he and others (including Fidel Castro) consider the many injustices over in Cuba and start planning for a revolution. Despite being Argentinian by birth, Che follows them to Cuba and joins the guerilla revolution.
But despite his start as a medic, Che began showing talents in other areas, and becomes a leader of the guerilla outlaws in the Cuban countryside. He grapples with his own ill health (asthma), the loss of his compatriots and the attacks from the military, which also threaten some of the non-revolutionaries -- and as time goes on, their revolution gained power and notice, and began the ultimate battle for control of Cuba.
Part 2: Later in life, Guevera comes to Bolivia disguised as a bespectacled bald businessman, with the intent of fighting another revolution in that country. But this revolution doesn't go as well as the Cuban one (for Che): shortages in food, internal betrayal, and one of their contacts (Franka Potente) goofs up royally. As Guevera's health deteriorates, the Bolivian army and the CIA take measures to quash his guerilla forces...
Rather than the usual biographical movie format, Steven Soderbergh approaches "Che" as if he were filming a documentary. There are no scenes of little Che being kicked by a rich guy or melodramatic subplots -- it's quite literally a slice of the pivotal point of Che Guevara's life, and a 1960s shakycam interview adds to that feeling. As an added note of authenticity, almost all of the dialogue is in Spanish rather than poorly-accented English, giving a you-are-there feel.
The storyline is rather slow, speeding up gradually as the revolution really heats up... only to slow back down in the second half with Guevera's decline. Most of the story is devoted to the guerillas staggering through the countryside, living in rough shacks and campsites. Even the landscapes reflect the ascent and descent of Guevera's power -- the first half is crammed with lush, vibrant jungle life, and the second is a washed-out, grey expanse of scrubby brush. Unfortunately, this means that over four hours, the story often drags like a ripped parachute.
But despite the slowness, each movie climaxes with some revolutionary action. Pinging gunshots, explosions, tanks, tense chases through deserted streets and burning trains all play a part in the harrowing finales of each half, which are all the worst because you know that all this mayhem actually took place.
Del Toro is, to put it mildly, astonishing as Guevara -- not only is he a dead ringer physically (with the right facial hair and clothes), but he exudes a quiet charisma, literate intelligence and power that make you see exactly why someone might follow him if they agreed with his politics. No one else in the story really gets to stand out, but Del Toro simply IS the cast all by himself.
Yet ironically it's a piously bland, virtuous portrait of Guevera. Soderbergh wimps out on the cruel, extremist sides of his personality and the regime he helped create; on the other hand, he also brushes over the man's fierce intellect, his writing, and world interests. It feels like we're looking at one mirrored facet of a very complex man, and surely more of who he was -- the good, the bad AND the ugly -- could have been included.
It's obvious Soderbergh put a lot of heart into producing the raw, realistic "Che," but his glorification and simplication of a controversial figure drags down his labor of love.
Best actor award at Cannes is the "cherry on top" for this excellent and, for me, "fair" bio-pick, which picks up after the film "Motorcycle Diaries"."