Che: The Argentine

Che: The Argentine

***

Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

If you ask people to sacrifice more than four hours of their time across two films to tell a life story, you had better make it worth their while. Sadly, Steven Soderbergh doesn't. It's unclear at what point the warning bells of self-indulgence begin to sound, but it is somewhere around an hour and a half, as Che Guevara, the hero of our piece, makes his way through yet another patch of Cuban scrub.

Since the films are being released as separate entities in the UK, it seems only fair to deal with them that way, so this review will confine itself to consideration of the first instalment. This splitting of the two is less involved than it seems, since both deal with entirely different periods in Che's life - his rise in Cuba, his demise in Bolivia - and are shot in fundamentally different ways, the second having less visual flair than the first, although the first has all the excitement of a wet weekend in Bognor. More is definitely less and those looking for a Che Guevara biopic would be well advised to stay at home and rent a copy of Walter Salles's far superior The Motorcycle Diaries.

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The Argentine charts the rise of the revolutionary and his campaign to wrest Cuba from the hands of the dictator Batista. His machinations are shown in bitesize chunks, sandwiched between segments recounting a visit he paid to the UN in New York and how he came to meet Castro and be in Cuba in the first place.

Initially this butterfly structure looks as though it will be a virtue. Surely, we will see something of the charismatic might of the "man that graced a thousand T-shirts" ricochet between his rousing of the poor in Cuba and his rousting of the West in the UN talking shop? Sadly not. All we are treated to is a curiously flat run-through of events, rendered initially confusing by the temporal shifts. Guevara, while no doubt gung-ho, is never presented as a fully rounded character. Benicio Del Toro's usually smouldering charms are muted and there is never a sense of how this Argentinian doctor came to be a leader of men, with Soderbergh insisting on keeping us so far at arms length he could almost be in 2D. This may be a symptom of a misfounded attempt to present Che in "neutral," rather than as a goodie or baddie. The result is the worst sort of bland.

There is too much room for staginess and not enough for sentiment, as Guevara and his band of raggle-taggle comrades, all of whom appear far too old for the roles in which they've been cast, yomp through various bits of Cuba, engaging in curiously bloodless battles. Also, like BBC Dickens adaptations of yore, everything is far too clean. You would think Che and his cronies were spending their nights in the local Travelodge rather than sleeping rough for all the affect it seems to have on them.

This history feels as dry as parchment and with no action to pep it up, or characterisation to cling to, it founders in a bath of Guevara's rhetoric. He fears journalists more than soldiers and believes his "fight is a fight to the death," amongst other things, the problem being you don't really care. Biopic victories were born to be laced with excitement, but, with the exception of a reasonably gripping final showdown in Santa Clara, there is nothing here but a sense of relief that the endurance test is half over.

To find out why, despite its faults, this is still the better of the two films, read about Che: Guerilla.

Reviewed on: 09 Oct 2008
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Che: The Argentine packshot
First part of Soderbergh's epic, sees the revolutionary take on Batista.
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Chris ****1/2

Director: Steven Soderbergh

Writer: Peter Buchman, based on writings by Ernesto 'Che' Guevara

Starring: Benicio Del Toro, Santiago Cabrera, Demián Bichir, Kahlil Mendez, Rodrigo Santoro, Yamil Adorno, Jorge Alberti, Marisé Alvarez, Ricardo Alvarez, Fernando Arroyo

Year: 2008

Runtime: 129 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: France, Spain, USA


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