Cannes 2008 diary: 'Che'
Geoff Andrew thinks Steven Soderbergh's 'Che' is a daring, sometimes infuriating monster of a movie
Undoubtedly the Cannes competition entry awaited with the most curiosity, Steven Soderbergh’s ‘Che’ turned up without opening or closing credits, and with a running time of nearly four and a half hours. The fact that the press screening started at 6.30pm, involved a quarter-hour intermission between the film’s two parts (with water, sarnie and Kit Kat provided), and had the hacks finally piling out for dinner after 11pm only added to the sense of ‘occasion’ – the anticipation of which surely explains the fact that the queue for admission started well over an hour before the film was due to begin.
Was it worth the wait? Well, Soderbergh has hardly made the most audience-friendly of movies; ‘Che’ is a massive, complex, challenging look at various periods in Ernesto Guevara’s life from the mid-‘50s, when he met the exiled Fidel Castro in Mexico, up to his death in Bolivia in 1967. It’s not only an entirely serious and adult film – indeed, it is best regarded as an art movie – but it’s also an extraordinary movie from an American director.
The product of copious research, with Soderbergh and scriptwriter Peter Buchman working from Guevara’s own writings, from the extensive documentation of his life, and from extensive interviews with the commandante’s former colleagues, the movie expects the viewer to make sense of what (s)he hears and sees without being fed expository information. In short, while Soderbergh has described Guevara’s life as ‘like an adventure story’, he has avoided going down the traditional heroic biopic path. This, in the end, is a film about the Revolution as work, as process, as struggle, rather than a sentimental celebration of one individual.
Soderbergh’s unusually audacious approach manifests itself in the immediately conspicuous differences between the two parts of the film. The first, which uses Che’s visit to the United Nations in New York in 1964 to look back over the years leading up to Batista’s flight from Havana, is shot in ‘Scope, with various colour codes signalling, à la ‘Traffic’, the different chronological threads in the narrative; it’s very talky, and packed with detail as it charts, battle by battle, Che’s troops’ advance to victory.
The second part, which deals with his time in Bolivia, hiding in anonymity in the forests as he tries to train a troupe of rebels against the military dictatorship in the art of guerilla warfare, is shot in normal wide-screen, has far less dialogue, and uses a colour palette that often borders on the monochromatic as it chronicles the steady failure of the Revolution in the face of local incompetence and ignorance, not to mention a president buoyed by US imperialist intervention. By the time of Che’s death, there is an overwhelming sense of inevitability, even, perhaps, futility, were it not for Che’s own undaunted faith in the struggle.
It’s a tough movie, then, sometimes repetitive to the point of near-abstraction, sometimes a little obscure in the precise details of the narrative, and never really offering any great insights into the personality of Guevara himself other than that he was loyal, dedicated, disciplinarian and driven by a fierce sense of injustice. (In these and other respects, the film reminded this writer of Ermanno Olmi’s likewise demanding but rewarding ‘The Profession of Arms’.)
Benicio Del Toro (who is one of the film’s producers) is more than adequate as Che – though Latin Americans may smart at his inability to manage a decent Argentinian accent – but the film is more concerned with the man’s actions and acquisition of power than with his emotional or psychological life, both of which are to all intents and purposes ignored. People wanting conventional heroics will almost certainly be disappointed; people prepared to go along with a long, detailed, finally rather subtle exploration of the spirit of Revolution, its moment of triumph and its sad demise, should hopefully find much that is thought-provoking and illuminating. Though the narrative dynamics sometimes feel a little flat and attenuated, ‘Che’ is a work of remarkable audacity and rare intelligence. It’s out there, and it’s most definitely worth seeing.
Read Cannes review of Clint Eastwood's 'The Exchange' here
Read our review of Steve McQueen's 'Hunger' here
Read our review of Fernando Meirelles Cannes 2008 opener,' 'Blindness', here
Author: Geoff Andrew
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