Soderbergh’s ‘Che’ intriguing, but it lacks focus

  • By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic
  • Friday, January 16, 2009 6:15pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

Having adorned posters and T-shirts for many years, the image of Che Guevara is due for a pop-culture reappraisal, especially given the way the revolutionary’s reputation continues to be disputed.

A two-part, four-hour-plus film, “Che” is not that reappraisal. It is hard to say precisely what this motion picture is meant to be.

Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh, whose work has ranged from blockbusters (the “Ocean’s Eleven” series) to experimental noodles (“Bubble”), clearly wants to do something different with this movie.

It’s not a heroic treatment of Che Guevara (played by Benicio Del Toro), but neither does it take a particularly critical stance. In fact, Soderbergh directs as though he would like to remove the presence of the director, or any kind of author, to the exercise. Call it the anti-Oliver Stone approach.

“Che: Part One” is an account of the Cuban Revolution, interspersed with scenes from Guevara’s 1964 public-relations trip to New York. This part, at least, has a dynamic at work: We see Che interviewed and giving a speech at the United Nations, intercut with his successful Cuban guerilla campaign. (Demian Bachir gives an excellent Fidel Castro impersonation.)

The contrast is effective: On the one hand, Guevara the media figure, striding around in his combat fatigues and puffing on a cigar while denouncing capitalism; on the other, Guevara the asthmatic insurgent slogging through jungle, getting the thing actually done.

Like “Lawrence of Arabia,” “Che” has two parts, arranged first as epic success story, then as chaotic aftermath. “Che: Part Two” jumps to Bolivia, where Guevara tried to bring his tactics to another insurrection — this one a disastrous failure.

Del Toro, who won an Oscar in Soderbergh’s “Traffic,” is embedded in the role, and convincingly portrays the exhaustion (and sometimes the irritation) of being a leader in desperate circumstances. Because the movie is conceived in a documentary fashion, the character of Che almost slips away in the foliage — which was Soderbergh’s intent, but does nothing to showcase Del Toro’s performance.

“Che” is more intriguing than engaging. Working with fast, portable video cameras, Soderbergh catches a strong you-are-there feeling. I like the way the pale-green jungle becomes a character, overwhelming these people and their dreams of insurrection.

Yet “Che” plays as a strongly conceptual film, and the thing most illuminated about Che Guevara is how miserable, rather than glorious, his fighting life was. That’s worth noting, but there must be something more to the man.

“Che” is supposedly being released in its full four-hour length in only a handful of cities, perhaps to be replaced later by a shorter cut. It’s hard to understand Soderbergh cutting all this into one film, since it’s designed as a two-fer. But then many things are puzzling about this picture.

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