4-hour 'Che' breaks biopic mold

Benicio Del Toro is mesmerizing in the title role - triumphant in the movie's first part set in Cuba, doomed in the second part in Bolivia.
Benicio Del Toro is mesmerizing in the title role - triumphant in the movie's first part set in Cuba, doomed in the second part in Bolivia.
Posted: January 16, 2009

Che is not your conventional biopic. Released in a "roadshow" version at the Ritz Five - no trailers, no credits, with an intermission and a beautiful program booklet, total running time: 4 hours, 17 minutes - Steven Soderbergh's portrait of the Marxist revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara dispenses with basic personal and historical data.

There are no flashbacks of the schoolkid in short pants, no epiphanies of college radicalization, no merchandising confab where the Argentine physician-turned-guerrilla fighter and posthumous counterculture icon negotiates royalties for all those T-shirts and poster sales.

What this slow-moving but fascinating two-part portrait does do is hunker down in the jungles and mountains of Cuba and (in the second part) Bolivia, capturing in keen, almost Zen-like detail the trudging and trekking, the recruiting and strategizing, the fighting and the philosophizing. With Benicio Del Toro delivering a fiercely indrawn and mesmerizing performance in the title role, Che is neither a hagiography nor a superficial character sketch.

Soderbergh, one of the most adventurous and prolific of contemporary American filmmakers, offers an ellipitical series of "moments" - benchmarks from Che's involvement in Fidel Castro's 21/2-year insurgency against Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista, and then, after serving in Cuba's Communist government, Guevara's disappearance into the wilds of Bolivia. There, Che attempts to replicate his success, leading a similar revolt against a corrupt regime. But things don't turn out so well: Captured by the Bolivian military - aided and advised by the CIA - Che was executed. It was 1967. He was 39.

Soderbergh does his own cinematography. He shot Part One in a lush, widescreen format, and Part Two in a closed-in frame, with a faded patina that speaks to Che's failed and fatal final campaign. There are strong supporting turns from Demian Bichir (Fidel Castro), Rodrigo Santoro (Raul Castro), Catalina Sandino Moreno (Che's wife, Aleida) and Julia Ormond (TV reporter Lisa Howard). There's a revelatory sequence in which Guevara, post-revolution, an emissary of Castro, travels to New York to speak before the United Nations. His speech, and his rebuttal, verbatim transcripts of his 1964 appearances, are eye-opening in their unapologetic, anti-capitalist, anti-U.S. fervor.

The movie requires patience.

It avoids making judgments on the moral and political "truth" behind Che's actions, but it does, in masterful and compelling ways, demonstrate his unyielding obsession and determination to establish a working Communist system. An intellectual, a writer, emotionally cold and physically hampered - he was asthmatic - Che nonetheless inspired hundreds of farmers and villagers, men and women, to become fighters, leading them in bold attacks against soldiers and police.

Like Terrence Malick's World War II epic The Thin Red Line (but without that film's pretentious, poetic voice-overs), Che takes its viewers into the thick, verdant forests where guns are fired, blood is spilled, and nature's creatures dart for cover amid the destructive forces of man. If nothing else, the film depicts the grueling challenges and daunting logistics faced by the rebel militia - lacking munitions, medicine, food and shelter in their long and improbable slog to victory. In the case of Che, Part Two, of course, it's a not-so-long and suicidal slog toward tragic defeat.


Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://go.philly.com/onmovies.

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