In the interest of making sure I got to the theater on time for an early 6pm screening of Che, I cut my afternoon film schedule off after one film. It turns out the seating was reserved (hence the aisle and seat number on my ticket) so I needn’t have bothered. Oh well. It’s all for the better because I don’t even have time at the moment to talk about the other film (Austria’s Best Foreign Language Oscar entry Revanche) before tapping out a few thoughts on Che and then heading back to the theater. So enough jibber jabber. Let’s get to it.
Well, that was something, wasn’t it? With Che, Steven Soderbergh has taken the epic biography popularized in such films as Lawrence of Arabia, Patton and Reds, and he’s stripped it of the artificially dramatic highs and lows, the easy carry-aways and the emotional sweep that make those films so popular. At the same time, he’s made a film about one of the most controversial political figures of the 20th century yet refused to take a stand on his subject (sure to piss off both the left and the right). Oh, and he’s also made a Terence Malick film without the overt lyricism.
That’s a lot of things that Che isn’t and here’s another thing it isn’t going to be: Box office success. Except for some gorgeous digital cinematography (by Steven Soderbergh as “Peter Andrews”) and a great score by Alberto Iglesias, Soderbergh hasn’t seen fit to include any of the things audiences are looking for in this kind of picture and there’s no way in hell average people are going to want to sit through 4 hours of it. Based on the reactions out of Cannes and Toronto, this describes a sizeable chunk of the critical community as well. Unfortunately, I think releasing the film in more easily digestible 2-hour chunks is pointless. Much of the power of the film is in the rise and fall arc both parts describe and I’m not sure how well they’d stand on their own.
So what is Che? Technically it’s a two-part look at Che Guevara. The first part charts his rise as he helps Fidel Castro take over Cuba and the second examines his fall as he tries to apply the same techniques used in Cuba on a larger scale to Bolivia and ultimately to all of South America. That’s the plot in the tiniest of nutshells.
Ultimately though, Che is a contradiction. It’s an epic that looks inward rather than examining the sweep of history. Instead of big historical beats, it’s comprised almost entirely of little moments; of men sitting around a camp telling jokes for example. It’s about a man’s life from relative youth when the whole world is open to him to his later years when he’s increasingly hemmed in by his own choices, his celebrity, his asthma and the Bolivian army – interestingly the first part is in projected in a 2.35:1 CinemaScope ratio and the 2nd part is restricted to standard 1.85:1.
This is kind of a scattered look at the film and that’s a reflection of my immediate feelings. The truth is I’m still not quite sure what to make of it. Like the recent Synecdoche, New York, I didn’t leave the theater feeling like I’d been knocked on my ass, yet the 4 1/2 hours (including intermission) breezed by. Basically, Soderbergh threw me a curveball and I was caught looking. It’s going to take another viewing before I decide whether it’s a good cinematic experiment or a great one. Given another day to mull it over, I might be able to make better sense of it all, but so it is with a film festival.
Anyway, besides the terrific cinematography and score, a special word should be reserved for Benicio Del Toro who disappeared into his role. Unfortunately, it’s such an immersive and subtle performance it probably won’t get him any Oscar love. He inhabits a human being without any scenery chewing speeches or dramatic high points. Ultimately I think it’s for the better and it suits the low-key observationalist style of the film, but it’s going to leave a lot of people feeling like there’s no there there. We’re so used to every performance and every plot point dialed up to 11 and then edited to within an inch of its life, Che is certain to rub a lot of people the wrong way. Soderbergh bashers will have plenty of new ammo, but I think fans will have a refreshing new piece of meat to chew over that feels a bit more substantial than some of his recent efforts.
I’ll take a look at the crime drama Revanche tomorrow, but for now I’m off to The Class and Hunger.