Che, the film about the adult life of Che Guevara, is a movie in two parts. However, even though those two parts are directed by the same man, star the same actor and tell, in succession, the same story, they look and feel nothing alike.
In the first film, director Steven Soderbergh turns up the director dial to infinity, using every trick ever created in the name of Louis B. Mayer. There are sequences in both color and black and white, a nonlinear narrative that jumps around in time and space, a wide variety of shooting styles, alterations in film stock, the insertion of newsreel footage, and rapid editing. It gives the entire enterprise a frenzied sense of youth and revolution.
In the second part, the narrative is strictly linear. The camera work is consistently handheld. The film stock is always the same washed-out color. And the story is slow and plodding and painful, creating an atmosphere of defeat and death.
So the first part is a lot more fun. It’s probably the most riveting movie ever made about an Argentinean who leads a communist revolution in a Caribbean nation. Starting with a dinner in Mexico City, winding its way through the jungles of Cuba, and circling high society in New York City in the early ’60s to arrive at the United Nations, only to then head back through all those locales, Che: Part One creates a clear impression of an era and the central moments in a life.
Benicio Del Toro is pretty much perfect in the lead role. The part demands the kind of charisma and sex appeal that could get your face turned into an iconic poster and your name dragged through the mud by right-wing bloggers 40 years after your death. But more importantly, it demands that you have an actual personality, a degree of depth and enough doubt to show that the ideas you put forward aren’t the result of reading a script or having memorized an ideology, but rather come from an actual inner world. And that’s why Soderbergh cast Del Toro and not Zac Efron, who probably looks more like Che Guevara, but doesn’t quite have Del Toro’s gravitas.
The second part of Che, though, is only about that gravitas. For that reason, it’s a much more difficult film than Part One, but no less an artistic achievement. In Part One, Soderbergh can establish the character of Che as vibrant and inventive and excited, but also cautious and concerned and introspective. He doesn’t whitewash Guevara’s life; he shows executions and anger. But he also shows aspects that are left out of a lot of American representations of the Cuban revolution: the concern for the poor, Che’s work as a doctor and teacher and his interest in spreading literacy and health care.
Having established his character in the first film, Soderbergh looks at his character’s limits in the second. As the movie meanders through beautiful highland forests, a handheld camera takes in intimate scenes of small bands of weary and undersupplied soldiers. Sweeping shots of mountains and valleys—while beautiful—hint at the revolutionaries’ distance from the people. Where the first part showed hordes of troops and admirers and cities full of welcoming citizens, in the second, Che has to deal with peasants who hate and distrust him, and soldiers who barely have the will to go on.
Soderbergh does a good job of both showing Guevara’s determination and questioning the legitimacy of the Bolivian plan. And throughout the second part, one feels the grim sense that Guevara has gone a step too far.
The tragic end is a traditional part of epic storytelling, and Soderbergh definitely gives Guevara’s life the epic treatment. What he doesn’t do is make Guevara more than human, or beyond reproach. He also doesn’t fall for the trap of turning the film into a simple political commentary on Guevara’s life. The biggest mistake would have been to try to create a politically balanced film, giving voice to all opinions on Che’s life and works.
Instead, Soderbergh creates a more personal film, and I’m sure commentators from all parts of the political spectrum will fault him for that. But Che is a work of art much more than it’s an attempt at political statement-making, and on that front, what Soderbergh has done is truly impressive.
Che: Part One opens Friday, March 13, at the Wilma Theatre.