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Che
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Screenplay: Part One: Peter Buchman (based on the book Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War by Ernesto “Che” Guevara); Part Two: Peter Buchman and Benjamin A. van der Veen (based on the book Bolivian Diary by Ernesto “Che” Guevara)
Stars: Benicio Del Toro (Che Guevara), Demian Bichir (Fidel Castro), Julia Ormond (Lisa Howard), Carlos Bardem (Moisés Guevara), Victor Rasuk (Rogelio Acevedo), Rodrigo Santoro (Raúl Castro), Santiago Cabrera (Camilo Cienfuegos), Vladimir Cruz (Ramiro Valdés Menéndez), Alfredo de Quesada (Israel Pardo), Catalina Sandino Moreno (Aleida March)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 2008
Country: U.S. / France / Spain
Che Criterion Collection DVD
Che Steven Soderbergh’s Che, which chronicles the two major military campaigns of the iconic guerilla leader, is the most ambitious historical epic since Oliver Stone’s JFK (1991). Eschewing the traditional narrative trappings of the Hollywood biopic, Soderbergh’s portrait of Ernesto “Che” Guevara, an Argentinean doctor who helped lead the communist revolution in Cuba but ironically became most famous in the West as a commodified poster and T-shirt icon for rebellion and dissent, is composed of two separate films, each of which is a distinct whole that nevertheless achieves full significance only in relation to the other. Befitting Soderbergh’s interlocking love of film history and postmodern sensibilities, Che is simultaneously a Hollywood throwback with its lengthy, four-and-a-half-hour roadshow grandiosity and a challenging experiment in genre reformulation.

Although each of the film’s two parts is distinctly different both narratively and aesthetically, Soderbergh intended for them to be seen together (the dictates of the marketplace ultimately insisted that they be distributed as two separate films, which is how most people saw them during their brief theatrical run). Part One: The Argentine, which chronicles Che’s involvement in Fidel Castro’s Marxist revolution in Cuba from 1956 to 1959, is the more conventional of the two halves, with its 2.35:1 ’Scope aspect ratio matching its epic view of history. Part Two: Guerilla, which depicts Che’s ultimately failed attempt to foment a similar revolution in Bolivia in the late 1960s, is a more intimate portrait that grows increasingly claustrophobic as it heads toward Che’s eventual capture and execution; Soderbergh (who, as usual, acted as his own cinematographer) uses the more constricted 1.78:1 aspect ratio to focus on the day-to-day realities of living and fighting in a hostile jungle environment.

Yet, for all their aesthetic and narrative distinctions, Part One and Part Two are closely tied together by Soderbergh’s clear-minded goal of cutting through the empty iconography that has turned Che’s likeness into a merchandizing bonanza and find the man himself, who is powerfully embodied in Benicio Del Toro’s Cannes-winning performance. Del Toro’s performance is both subtle and compelling, and as a result Che sidesteps hagiography even as it demonstrates a deep respect for its subject’s political convictions and military determination (although it almost completely avoids any depictions of Che’s personal life). In other words, it shows us why we’re still talking and thinking about Che Guevara without resorting to T-shirt slogans and counterculture hero worship.

The bulk of the narrative in Part One focuses on Che’s military endeavors in Cuba, as he and Fidel Castro (Demian Bichir) assemble and train a guerrilla army that moves across the country battling the U.S.-backed Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista’s military forces en route to eventual victory at Santa Clara. Scripted by Peter Buchman (Eragon) from Guevara’s book Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War, the film cannily intercuts between the revolution itself and Che’s later visit to New York City in 1964 as the official Cuban representative, during which time he delivered a controversial address to the United Nations. Soderbergh relies heavily on sharp contrasts throughout the film, giving us large-scale battle sequences that emphasize Che’s standing as a historical revolutionary and military genius with extreme close-ups of his time in New York that stress both his humanity and his unwavering political stance that capitalism and colonialism are to blame for most of the world’s ills. Shot in grainy black and white, the scenes in New York also include crucial bits of an interview in which Che is allowed to expound on his principles, with the key moment coming when he is asked what it feels like to be an icon and responds “An icon of what?”

Part Two: Guerilla picks up almost a decade after the Cuban Revolution when Che snuck into Bolivia and attempted to repeat history with ultimately disastrous results. Interestingly, Part Two actually represents the originating point of the film project, as it was originally conceived almost a decade ago with Terence Malick as director before Soderbergh was brought on-board and decided that the Bolivian campaign needed the context of the Cuban Revolution to give it true meaning. The screenplay, which was originally written by Benjamin A. van der Veen based Guevara’s Bolivian Diary and then retooled by Buchman, stays extremely close to the ground and allows Soderbergh some of his most intense filmmaking to date. Relying entirely on handheld camera in the jungle, the film relentlessly chronicles the increasing desperation of Che’s ragtag guerilla forces and the ugly realities of revolution. Everything that went right in Cuba goes wrong in Bolivia, and even if you take a dismal view of Che’s ambitious desire for a worldwide political revolution, it is hard to deny that his eventual execution in a mud hut is a haunting tragedy.

Even with its lengthy running time, Che certainly has its share of notable omissions, particularly Che’s role in Cuba immediately after the revolution when he was in charge of executing Batista loyalists, which his critics have used to paint him as more bloodthirsty than idealistic. Soderbergh does depict some of Che’s harsher military decisions in the field, which include the execution of two of his own men in Cuba, although this is ameliorated by the fact that they raped and pillaged Cuban peasants, something that Che had strictly forbade.

However, to focus on what was left out of the film is its own kind of straw man, since no cinematic portrait of a historical figure can ever hope to capture every element of that person’s life (in fact, the worst biopics are the ones that try to cram everything into a greatest hits package, rather than taking a specific perspective). Che willfully ignores large chunks of Che Guevara’s life in favor of focusing on his greatest success and his greatest failure, thus providing the bookends that shape our understanding of the man and why he is one of the seminal figures of the 20th century. Soderbergh’s two films, with their distanced, some might say “academic” approach and insistent aversion to romanticism and idealism, aren’t perfect by any means (the Matt Damon cameo and jarring first-person perspective of Che’s execution are particularly ill-suited to the material), but the film as a whole represents the kind of challenging historical filmmaking that is all too frequently lacking in Hollywood cinema. Like Che himself, you may not agree with it, but you can’t deny its conviction.

Che Criterion Collection Three-Disc DVD Set
Che is also available from the Criterion Collection on Blu-Ray.
Aspect Ratio2.35:1 (Part One) / 1.78:1 (Part Two)
Audio Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 surround
Subtitles English
Supplements Audio commentaries by historian Jon Lee Anderson Making Che documentary
  • End of a Revolution 1967 documentary
  • Che and the Digital Cinema Revolution” featurette
  • Deleted scenes
  • Theatrical trailer
  • Insert booklet featuring an essay by critic Amy Taubin
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    SRP$49.95
    Release DateJanuary 19, 2010

    VIDEO & AUDIO
    As Che was the first feature film to be shot on the 4K high-definition RED One Digital Cinema camera, the vast majority of the transfer on this DVD is a direct digital-to-digital port. The only scenes that were actually shot on film are the early Mexico City sequences in Part One and the black-and-white sequences in New York in 1964, all of which were shot on Super 16mm. As a result, these sequences have a visibly different look from the rest of the film in terms of grain and texture. The rest of the film has a much smoother appearance, although the extreme high resolution of the RED One camera ensures that it still looks inherently cinematic, rather than digital. The Dolby Digital 5.1 surround soundtrack is an exact replica of the theatrical experience. It features excellent fidelity and cleanness, and the surround effects during the battle sequences draw you in with strong directionality and aural detail.
    SUPPLEMENTS
    The audio commentaries (one on each film) by historian Jon Lee Anderson, author of Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life and consultant on the production, doesn’t refer much to the film itself (although he doesn’t feel shy about pointing out where he feels it is lacking). However, his commentaries are probably the best four-hour discussion of Che Guevara’s life and its relationship to Latin American political, military, and social history you will ever hear, and they add quite substantially to one’s appreciation of the film. Making Che is a new 49-minute documentary that features interviews with director Steven Soderbergh, producer Laura Bickford, actor-producer Benicio del Toro, and writers Peter Buchman and Ben van der Veen. A significant portion of the documentary focuses on the film’s long road to production and its complex distribution, which began with its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival. “Che and the Digital Cinema Revolution” is an invaluable featurette that focuses on how the groundbreaking digital camera affected how Che was produced. Also included on the disc are a series of interviews conducted by Benicio Del Toro and Laura Bickford of participants in and historians of the Cuban Revolution and Che’s Bolivian campaign; End of a Revolution, a short 1967 British documentary about Bolivia made right after Che’s execution; numerous deleted scenes from both halves of the film; and the original theatrical trailer.

    Overall Rating: (3.5)

    Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick

    All images copyright © IFC Films and The Criterion Collection


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