There’s a majesty to Che: Part One, the endless, blue Puerto Rican (I think) sky standing in for Cuba. Soderbergh loves that sky. Soderbergh’s Panavision frame doesn’t allow for much in the way of lyricism–I think the first shot of that nature comes in the last twenty minutes of the film. It’s a great looking film throughout, but Soderbergh lets the subject matter control the viewer’s perception. When he finally does throw in this wonderfully composed shot, it gives the viewer pause, reminding him or her it’s just a filmic narrative.
It should be hard to forget Che‘s a narrative–Soderbergh applies some of those masterful filmic pseudo-non-fiction skills he used in Traffic (to a similarly dispassionate result)–since it opens in a rather traditional manner. A (temporarily) unseen Julia Ormond is interviewing Benicio Del Toro about the early days of the Cuban Revolution, the planning days, and–on cue–the film flashes back. This interview–Ormond finally shows up visually following her introduction in the regular narrative–frames the entire film. It’s a traditional move and probably not a good one. Che‘s an epic biopic–it’s essentially the Lawrence of Arabia treatment, if a tad shorter–it doesn’t do anything to break the format. Like most biopics, Che keeps the viewer outside Che’s head. Del Toro gives a great performance, especially since his character is the least dynamic in the entire film.
Che’s a passive character in the film, certainly not as charismatic as Demián Bichir’s Castro. Del Toro infuses the character with a righteousness–there’s never a moment of doubt the man isn’t fully committed to doing what he says. I’d heard the film doesn’t paint Che in a positive light, but I must have had water in my ears. Soderbergh and screenwriter Peter Buchman tell the film from a viewpoint where there’s no way not to see Che as a hero. Che: Part One‘s Communist propaganda to be sure–it’s no wonder it didn’t get a real American distributor–but it’s impossible to imagine it told in any other way. The only time the film ducks out on any responsibility is in terms of Che’s marriage. There’s a big, “I’m married,” revelation scene with adoring revolutionary Catalina Sandino Moreno… immediately followed with Del Toro flirting with her every few minutes. It’s a cheap move–the film goes far to avoid giving too much background on Che, instead letting Del Toro do incredibly heavy lifting creating the character with little story support–the scenes where he’s acting as a physician are incredible, since this element’s introduced early on, so watching the soldier back down in an internal struggle to the physician… it’s lovely.
Soderbergh hasn’t fired Peter Andrews yet and Andrews’s cinematography is beautiful. It’s not just that blue sky, it’s the lush greenness. The last quarter or so of the film is a big urban battle sequence and it’s absolutely amazing. Che‘s never really a war movie, but Soderbergh’s direction of the city-set battle is peerless.
The film’s got a large cast and lots of characters have nicknames, lots have distinctive physical characteristics (so the viewer can recognize them immediately). At times, it feels as though Che wouldn’t be about Che if the film didn’t have the framework (there’s more than the interview, it also covers Che at the United Nations). The film doesn’t do anything to lionize the character in a general sense (it’s impossible to reconcile that iconic image of Che with Del Toro’s creation)–he’s a hero, but because of the way the film’s story is told.
Soderbergh films like Che: Part One always make me forget he’s capable of real emotional depth. It seems like he reserves such explorations of the human condition for his lower budgeted projects. I wish, just once, he’d try the reverse.
Directed by Steven Soderbergh; screenplay by Peter Buchman, based on a memoir by Ernesto Guevara; director of photography, Peter Andrews; edited by Pablo Zumárraga; music by Alberto Iglesias; production designer, Antxón Gómez; produced by Laura Bickford and Benicio Del Toro; released by IFC Films.
Starring Benicio Del Toro (Ernesto Che Guevara), Demián Bichir (Fidel Castro), Santiago Cabrera (Camilo Cienfuegos), Vladimir Cruz (Ramiro Valdés Menéndez), Alfredo De Quesada (Israel Pardo), Jsu Garcia (Jorge Sotus), Kahlil Mendez (Leonardo Tamayo Núñez), Elvira Mínguez (Celia Sánchez), Andres Munar (Joel Iglesias Leyva), Julia Ormond (Lisa Howard), Jorge Perugorría (Vilo), Édgar Ramírez (Ciro Redondo García), Victor Rasuk (Rogelio Acevedo), Othello Rensoli (Pombo), Armando Riesco (Benigno), Catalina Sandino Moreno (Aleida March), Roberto Santana (Juan Almeida), Norman Santiago (Tuma), Rodrigo Santoro (Raúl Castro), Unax Ugalde (Vaquerito), Roberto Urbina (Guile Pardo) and Yul Vazquez (Alejandro Ramirez).