Steven Soderbergh has mastered the art of getting impossible films made. He alternates between glossy Hollywood productions and lo-fi independent projects, occasionally turning in a film that seems to bridge both worlds (Solaris, The Good German). He’s the only living Oscar-winning filmmaker unpretentious enough to make Ocean’s Thirteen, and probably the only one who would risk following it with a $65 million, four-and-a-half-hour, mostly Spanish-language film about Che Guevara.
Soderbergh’s Che, which will play an Oscar-qualifying release in mid-December before rolling out to Chicago (and IFC Films’ video-on-demand slate) in January, is easily the director’s most ambitious film yet: a portrait of the Argentine-born comandante (a powerfully reserved Benicio Del Toro) that boldly declines to provide any sense of its subject’s psychology or personal life, choosing instead to view him almost exclusively through his military campaigns.
Indeed, it’s tough to think of the movie as a biopic at all: There are no rousing speeches, no “eureka” moments, little that explains how Che’s philosophy was forged. His only lengthy discussions are derived from actual interviews or writings. Controversially, in choosing to zero in on Guevara’s role in the Cuban Revolution and his attempt to repeat the process a decade later in Bolivia, the movie jumps over the period of his brutal human-rights abuses in Castro’s government—an elision that some critics understandably see as a whitewash.
But the film makes no attempt to be comprehensive. “I was trying to avoid what I felt were typical scenes for a biographical film,” Soderbergh told us in September at the Toronto International Film Festival, where Che resurfaced, four months after its Cannes premiere, following much speculation over when—or if—it would receive a proper release. “I would say to [screenwriter] Peter Buchman, ‘I’m trying to find the scenes that would happen before or after the scene that you would typically see in a movie like this.’ ”
When Che premiered at Cannes in May, audiences were blindsided by what Variety’s Todd McCarthy derided as “antidramatic” qualities: its seemingly endless, borderline surreal scenes of small-scale military tactics, marches through the jungle and bartering for food. Guevara wrote a how-to manual on guerrilla warfare, and the movie often plays like the film equivalent.
“I felt like through showing this process, you would understand him and understand his ideas,” Soderbergh says. “It seemed like that was a more cinematic way to present his ideas than the sort of typical portrayal of his personal life or formative years.”
This is a film that drives a lot of people nuts. (Soderbergh has acknowledged that it takes a certain kind of personality to see it in one sitting.) In press conferences, the director has said the movie’s real subject is not so much Che as the issue of political engagement. It’s one thing to say you’ll start a revolution; it’s another to march through the jungle for a year, without food, comfort or family—and without any indication that it will lead somewhere.
The movie neither elevates nor condemns Che; rather, it asks that you acknowledge the physical insanity of what he did. “Everybody’s got their own idea of Che,” Soderbergh says. “And they’re watching something that is, in this instance, a very specific and subjective take on him…. It just seems to me that with a character this complicated, you’re going to have a very polarized reaction.”
The controversy has as much to do with Soderbergh’s approach to the material as to Guevara himself. Che attempts to be true to its protagonist in form as well as content. Because of Che’s belief in collectives, Soderbergh avoided filming close-ups of Del Toro (although in part two, he notes, the camera gradually gets closer to Che as his situation becomes more bleak). “You can’t make a movie about a guy who has these hard-core sort of egalitarian socialist principles and then isolate him with close-ups,” Soderbergh says. “But it’s been interesting how annoyed some people have been… It’s really funny.”
In keeping with the Marxist notion of advancement through two conflicting ideas—or dialectics—the film is set up as a contrast: It’s divided into halves, with two tempos, two color schemes, two aspect ratios and two approaches to chronology. Each half focuses on a different revolution—both fundamentally the same in theory but vastly different in outcome.
The brighter, wide-screen first half looks at Che mainly from 1955 to 1959, focusing on his actions in the Cuban Revolution and interspersing them with black-and-white reenactments of a visit to New York in 1964. In Cuba, we see Che treating the sick, managing column formation, disciplining a deserter. The first half culminates in his successful siege on Santa Clara—but denying the audience catharsis, it ends 186 miles before Guevara reaches Havana.
The more linear second half—with title cards marking the passage of days—focuses on Che’s attempt to export revolution to Bolivia in 1966 and 1967; in the Herzogian opening sequence, he comes out of hiding and descends into the jungle. It’s the same story again—only this time, Che’s asthma acts up, the government propaganda against him works, and his soldiers are less committed—a combination of factors that culminated in Che’s capture and execution.
Che asks that you look at these two halves from the vantage point of a bystander. “I think ten years from now, it’s possible that the people who are complaining about the ‘antidramatic approach’ might look at it and go, ‘God, now that I look at it ten years later, I kind of like that it’s not in my face,’ ” Soderbergh says.
Despite suspicions that the film had little commercial potential, Che has been a box-office smash in Spain. Now comes the test in the U.S. Since Cannes, Soderbergh has added a moment of Guevara and Fidel Castro shaking hands, tweaked a few transitions and tacked on an overture and entr’acte to the “road show” version that will play in major cities. In his one regrettable cut, he also removed the trial of guerrilla Lalo Sardiñas—not only one of the film’s most haunting scenes but a key hint at the darker side of Che’s ideology.
IFC’s day-and-date program will enable viewers to watch Che on-demand, which—if you have a hi-def TV—Soderbergh thinks is a perfectly pleasurable way to see the film. (Still, the immersion of a theater seems ideal to us.)
“I’ve always believed that this movie is actually going to make money,” Soderbergh says. “It’s this crazy paradox that Che, as this symbol of Marxist-Leninist anticapitalism, is a hugely commercial brand.”
Of course, controversy helps and hurts—we raise the notion that he’s whitewashing Che. “That I’m Leni Riefenstahl?” Soderbergh asks rhetorically.
“Often when I get in these discussions with people who are anti-Che, I say, ‘Look, I don’t know what you’re upset about. For one, he was killed in exactly the way you would have him killed. He was executed without a trial after being held in a room for a day and a half.’ ”
He adds, “I can’t editorialize about each individual character on the screen—I have to present them all as believing what they believe… There’s an assumption that if I choose to make a film about this guy that I believe everything that he believes. And that’s just not possible.”
In a way, Soderbergh’s aggressively narrow approach might be more ethical than the standard Hollywood treatment: A normal biopic also would have garnered charges of omissions, but Che—by keeping its subject at such a pronounced, quasi-objective remove—can only be seen as a partial view. It forces viewers to ask what’s been left out.
One worries that Soderbergh won’t be given the money to make a movie this audacious—this avant-garde—again. But he’s been through this before. “I’m like the cockroach that can survive after a nuclear holocaust,” Soderbergh says. “I will always find a way to make something.”
Che is scheduled to open on January 16.