|Che: Part One|
|Written by Ivan Radford|
|Friday, 02 January 2009 12:28|
Director: Steven SoderberghThe man whose face adorns a thousand t-shirts, who overthrew a dictator, and single-handedly fuelled the cigar industry in Cuba, seems like the ideal subject for a Hollywood biopic. But up to the plate steps Soderbergh, the most un-Hollywood of all Hollywood helmers. The maverick to the industry. LA’s Bergerac. And so the resulting piece is something a little different to what you’d expect.
Opening in a flurry of dates and titles, Soderbergh catches the audience up on the context of events – a harsh introduction, which speaks volumes about the director’s unforgiving focus on his own goals. This is not a chronological account of Ernesto “Che” Guevara’s life, nor is it a brain-delving emotional inspection; we remain detached from Che (Del Toro) throughout.
Soderbergh meticulously follows the arduous daily struggle of Che and his men in the jungle, attempting to assemble weapons and men, the means to achieve their aim. An engrossing traipse through the trials of history, it feels like we’ve spent years in the undergrowth with them, but we only ever see things from a distance. The closest thing we get to inner turmoil is Che’s chronic cough, perhaps the first time characterisation has been achieved through asthma. A revolution, then, without any revelations, there is no hint of his motivation – Che spouts maxims like “the penalty for treason is death”, clearly a principle which would have led many a man to an unpleasant slaughter, but we're never shown his ruthless dark side.
Cutting between this and a later New York interview – shot in glossy black and white – the first half of Soderbergh’s epic climaxes in the conflict with Batista’s men. These excellent battle sequences are hard-hitting and effective; sitting alongside Che’s address to the UN, they combine to create a genuine portrayal of the man’s remarkable movement. From his initial discussions with Fidel Castro (Bichir) to the final liberation of Cuba, there is a sense of actual achievement.
Del Toro is captivating as Guevara, wheezing his way through a four-hour epic and only mentioning his wife and kids once, and the brilliant Bichir is an eerily accurate Fidel, but the two remain remote islands in a sea of change. Soderbergh commented that “he means something different to everyone. At a certain point we had to decide for ourselves who Che was.” Perhaps they never did. Refraining from the urge to tell his life story, Soderbergh’s two-part biopic is centred on its objectives. So much so that it forgets to sort out its sloppy subtitles, often placed against white backgrounds without second thought – there’s no excuse for that (although its less of an issue in Part Two). An iconic enigma, Che seems ideal material for a biopic. Of course, he already was in 2004: The Motorcycle Diaries is a far more engaging slice of celluloid.
Gripping and immersive, but never involving, Soderbergh’s Che is challenging to watch. And not always in a good way.