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You Say He Wrought a Revolution

MOVIE REVIEW
Che (2008)

Still6
Daniel Daza/IFC Films

The complicated life of Ernesto “Che” Guevara — idealistic doctor, determined revolutionary, postmortem counter-cultural symbol — is fodder enough for dozens of movies, so it’s no surprise that Steven Soderbergh decided to make two. The magnum opus of a director increasingly drawn towards experimentalism, the nearly five-hour “Che” divides into “The Argentine” and “Guerilla,” with each focused on the defining periods of Che’s career as a revolutionary. Experiencing the “roadshow” version – in which the two films are combined in one sitting with a 15-minute intermission – can be taxing, but there’s no questioning the scope and depth of this achievement.

With the handy assistance of the RED — a new high quality, mobile digital camera — Mr. Soderbergh immerses the movie in naturalistic detail, one of its major strengths. It’s been shot almost entirely outdoors, amidst the lush green shrubbery of the Spanish countryside (doubling, along with Mexico and Puerto Rico, for Cuba and Bolivia) and the entire production feels lived-in, fully invested in Che’s world. Director of photography Peter Andrews artfully frames Che and his compatriots against the natural splendor at hand. He and Mr. Soderbergh expertly choreograph the veracious battle scenes, generating the breathless tension and spontaneous excitement one expects from a picture of this scale. The tandem is, however, just as successful when they forgo the epic approach, move into close-up and let star Benicio Del Toro do the best work of his career.

His magnetism provides the most tangible window into the historically opaque subject. In fact, Mr. Del Toro exerts such a pull over the production that it’s hard to resist scanning each frame for him, even in crowded pictorial wide shots in which he’s not the focus. “The Argentine” takes us to Cuba with Che, Fidel (Damian Bichir) and Raul Castro (Rodrigo Santoro). It depicts their fateful march through the Sierra Maestra mountains towards Havana and the stiff resistance they faced from Batista’s forces. Mr. Soderbergh, working from the screenplay by Peter Buchman and Benjamin A. van der Veen, intercuts black-and-white 16mm footage of Che’s trip to address the United Nations in 1964, allowing us to see the nascent stage of his transformation into a ubiquitous, fetishized icon. “Guerilla” chronicles the entire scope of Che’s activities in Bolivia, from his stealth arrival into the country to the battle he and his compatriots fought unprepared.

Any production of this heft poses a slate of significant challenges: to the filmmakers hoping to streamline the storytelling in any way possible, to the audience expected to sit through it and to the actors asked to never let up their intensity over what must have been hours upon hours of filming. Remarkably, one’s patience only starts wearing thin midway through “Guerilla,” as the Bolivian combat grows repetitive and the narrative bogs down in an endless cycling through different peripheral personalities. Otherwise, Mr. Soderbergh has made a film of the highest order, one that invigorates two distinct historical periods with the finery of its craft and – thanks to Mr. Del Toro’s brilliant performance – lets us consider Guevara the man as closely as we have the legend.

CHE

Opens on Dec. 12 in New York and on Jan. 9, 2009 in Britain.

Directed by Steven Soderbergh; written by Peter Buchman; director of photography, Peter Andrews; production designer, Antxón Gómez; produced by Benicio Del Toro and Laura Bickford; released by IFC Films. At the Ziegfeld Theater, 141 West 54th Street, Manhattan. In Spanish and English, with English subtitles. Shown in two parts: “Che Part One,” 2 hours 9 minutes, and “Che Part Two,” 2 hours 8 minutes, with an intermission. This film is rated R by M.P.A.A. and 15 by B.B.F.C.

WITH: Benicio Del Toro (Che), Demián Bichir (Fidel Castro), Santiago Cabrera (Camillo Cienfuegos), Elvira Mínguez (Celia Sanchez), Jorge Perugorría (Joaquin), Edgar Ramirez (Ciro Redondo), Victor Rasuk (Rogelio Acevedo), Carlos Bardem (Moises Guevara), Joaquim de Almeida (Barrientos), Eduard Fernández (Ciro Algaranaz), Marc-André Grondin (Régis Debray), Catalina Sandino Moreno (Aleida Guevara) and Franka Potente (Tania).

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