Che: The Argentine


Reviewed by: Chris

Che: The Argentine
"This perhaps approaches as close to documentary as biopic is capable of."

Che is sometimes, like life itself, a bit of a mess. It meanders in and around the time of the Cuban revolution (fittingly, the film is being released 50 years on) but jumps back and forth to give us black and white footage of Che Guevara addressing the United Nations or meeting McCarthy in New York. And then moving through lush tropical terrain, fighting to overthrow the regime in power until 1959.

Says director Steven Soderbergh, “I was drawn to Che as a subject for a movie (or two) not only because his life reads like an adventure story, but because I am fascinated by the technical challenges that go along with implementing any large-scale political idea. I wanted to detail the mental and physical demands these two campaigns required, and illustrate the process by which a man born with an unshakable will discovers his own ability to inspire and lead others.” With that brief, there are many different films that could have been made. This is one of them. And rather a good one, yet probably not the one you will expect.

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There is plenty of close-up fighting. But somehow we feel quite removed from it. What Soderbergh portrays is not the action hero, nor the colourful subject of historical drama. Neither is Benicio Del Toro’s portrait one painted in close-ups and interiorisation. Instead, we have the vision. It's depicted in a way consistent with the man’s outlook – he was a team-player as well as a guerrilla and idealist. A doctor and a soldier who aroused strong loyalty. “I was trying to find the scenes that would happen before or after the scene you would typically see in a movie like this,” says Soderbergh. The result is casual, desultory. We get the feeling of what it may have been like to be around such a man. ‘Political’ is simply the mechanism, the “procedural of guerrilla warfare.” Soderberg is agnostic about Guevara and indifferent to the rabid hatred of people who have not even seen the film.

Meticulously researched over many years, Che is a considerable achievement in historical accuracy. And yet here is the first controversy. Wouldn’t a balanced portrait of such a mythologised figure include more of his faults as well as his virtues? I found myself struggling with this. A director who was capable of describing such a multiplicity of viewpoints (in his earlier film, Traffic) or bringing a real character to life on screen with emotional force (as in Erin Brockovich) was giving me something rather bland and unquestioning (Oliver Stone’s insipid Comandante was already coming to mind). Che Guevara was lionised by the liberal left from Sartre to Nelson Mandela, and is still a hero to many of the world’s youth. But he is also a figure hated by the anti-Castro Miami Cubans, not least for the bloody executions that followed his socialist revolution (a period conveniently ignored in the movie.)

I once berated Charlize Theron for her right-leaning documentary, East Of Havana , for its mis-statement of facts. But isn’t Soderbergh’s film, with seemingly the opposite political bent, guilty of omission? “There is no amount of accumulated barbarity that would have satisfied the people who hate him,” says the director when confronted with this. Although this will not appease the fervent anti-Castro-ists, it does give some justification to the filmmaker’s choices. Guevara is not just a political-historical figure. Based on the famous photo by Korda, his image continues to emblazon t-shirts and memorabilia worldwide. For many youngsters, he is simply an anti-authority figure. In parts of South America that I have visited, he symbolises opposition to U.S. economic occupation. In other words, he is a hero. The idea (rightly or wrongly) is of someone who put moral ideals above his own material welfare. Not a bad image for a youngster to aim at, perhaps. When we analyse the real person (which most people don’t), we could ask if ideals are as noble when they don’t always have noble results.

Soderbergh has had to condense enough material for a dozen films. The romantic youth so ably portrayed in The Motorcycle Diaries left the viewing public deprived of any representation of the most famous and important period of Che Guevara’s life. Before we passively sit down to a Spielberg-sized over-interpretation for bums on seats at the box-office, perhaps we should hail Soderbergh for this calm, relatively unspectacular and unemotional account. It is not a political film. But it perhaps approaches as close to documentary as biopic is capable of. Benicio Del Toro becomes Che Guevara with great skill. Not flamboyantly. Not with great theatrics or displays of emotion. Sincere and almost reverent, he blends seamlessly with quasi-documentary footage. Unless you heard the real Che Guevara speak at the United Nations, this is probably the next best thing.

On the other hand, if your reply is, “United what?” and you would prefer a well-made Hollywood romp, please leave Che to us sad little people who inhabit arthouse cinemas...

Reviewed on: 02 Jan 2009
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First part of Soderbergh's epic, sees the revolutionary take on Batista.
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Read more Che: The Argentine reviews:

Amber Wilkinson ***

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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