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CHE – Part 1 and Part 2 – Soderbergh’s Che: iconic, charismatic, idealistic, but opaque

Ernesto 'Che' Guevara

Ernesto 'Che' Guevara

Che – Steven Soderbergh

The essence of art is selection: and the logic of selection defines what is left out. The collaborative nature of the art of film-making increases the need for such eliminating decisions exponentially – casting, screenplay, lighting, angle, editing, music, sound and thousands of other decisions. The result is not the truth of a subject – but the subjective truth that the Director has chosen to show us.

Our lives are not stories, narratives – but we appear to be genetically programmed to impose a narrative form upon them – to create a sense, a meaning from the connections between the events of our external lives and the thoughts and feelings of our inner lives, our aspirations. The story appears to be a universal phenomenon within all cultures however disparate they may be in other respects.

Documentary and dramatised film treatments of the life of an historical figure will each hold the accuracy of facts and events as a central aesthetic value: but both forms are still subjective, for the linkage, the connections and therefore the meaning attributed to these actions, this life, amount to the creation of a narrative, the story of a life. The Director does not discover a narrative, for none exists, he creates one from the known, witnessed or speculated facts and connections.

Thus Walter Salles in his excellent Motorcycle Diaries (2004) chose to concentrate on the early life of Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara before he became the active revolutionary figure that Steven Soderbergh has chosen to portray. As it happens these two films are chronologically distinct, Soderbergh’s Che Part 1 beginning at a point where the developing political consciousness documented in Salles’s film finds expression in Che’s commitment to the Cuban revolution of Fidel Castro which over two years of guerrilla fighting eventually toppled the oppressive, corrupt, American-backed regime of Fulgencio Batista in January 1959.

The difference in focus seems apt: the young, personable, idealistic Che of the ‘Salles’ years found political expression for those ideals through revolutionary Marxist ideology. It is to Soderbergh’s credit that his film that sprawls over two parts (better I think seen as I did, in one 4hr 17min sitting with intermission) does not baulk at trying to portray the political context of Che’s life from 1956 when he joined Fidel Castro’s ‘26th of July’ revolutionary movement dedicated to the overthrow of Batista. Credit because despite sharing the fascination with a man who has become a world-wide icon for rebellion and revolutionary activity, the American public have a deep resistance to all socialistic ideology, communist or not; painful memories of the Cuban Missile Crisis that brought the world to the brink of nuclear war; and still register a profound hostility to Castro’s Cuba through a trade embargo still in existence today 46 years after its imposition in 1962.

There are two parts to Soderbergh’s film – Part 1 covering Che’s time in Cuba; Part 2 dealing with his later adventures in Bolivia where he tried to recreate the revolutionary uprising of the ordinary peasants against a regime as repressive as Batista’s had been in Cuba. Here lies the first problem I have with the narrative Soderbergh has chosen: much of the background to Cuba’s history is fairly widely known; Castro has become a familiar world-wide figure, notably during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis and subsequent support for Marxist revolutionary movements around the world. By comparison, such general familiarity outside South America, does not exist for the political history of Bolivia. That need not have mattered but while Part 1 of Che derives an escalating dramatic pace from the struggle, victory and establishment of revolutionary Cuba; Part 2 is dramatically downbeat as it charts the gradual decline in Che’s fortunes until his execution by Bolivian forces in La Higuera on October 9th 1967 at the age of 39.

Soderbergh’s meticulous development of events in Part 1; bravely educating us into the geography and political context of Che’s time in Cuba, is impressive but demands some patience and commitment by the audience but at least these events touched our lives in a way events in Bolivia did not. The same attention to detail in Part 2 becomes wearing and at times tedious, not just because by that stage we are already over two hours in, but more importantly, the Bolivian incidents are repetitive and inherently less dramatic. If left in, Soderbergh needed to inject some dramatic pace into the gradual closing of the government net on Che’s heroic but dwindling band of guerrillas.

Commitment and sincerity are not sufficient to sustain an audience’s good will and engagement for over four hours, split or not – there has to be a story to tell that needs 4 hours. Soderbergh’s Che simply does not. There is a much better, 2½ hour, single-sitting film here that has escaped him. He does not have a four hour story to tell.

I would so like to be able to rate Che more highly. Apart from the courage in taking on the political context, which is hardly pandering to the box-office, Soderbergh’s decision to film entirely in Spanish with sub-titles throughout is aesthetically absolutely right but will almost certainly harm his film’s success. The story Soderbergh decided to tell required a Director with an instinct for scale, visual and dramatic like say David Lean – Soderbergh’s directorial strengths are more intimate. By the time we get to Part 2 there is an overwhelming sense of episodic scenes and events being tacked on to one another.

This said there is much in Che, especially Part 1 to admire – notably of course Benicio’s Del Toro’s performance, where he builds on the luck of an uncanny resemblance with his fine voice and a subtlety of performance that adds far more resonance than is perhaps written in Peter Buckman’s at best workmanlike script.

Soderbergh’s time-fractured assembly of events in Part 1 is challenging but eventually works well, none better than the black and white, grainy scenes recreating Che’s historic address to the United Nations in December 1964 and the fascination with this charismatic legendary figure by the US media and political establishment.

Like Salles, Soderbergh effectively conveys a sense of Che’s charm, humanity and moral sensibility; a natural leader with an incisive mind: due service perhaps to a legendary figure who may well on balance deserve such consideration. For me however, regretfully, Che is an honourable failure. Soderbergh has unfortunately only scratched the surface of both the man and the events that defined him. If you want to feel a sense of what drove this complex man, Salles’s little film is far more revealing and evocative. If you want to understand better the political and ideological context for the events of Che’s life then the documentary form would have better served that objective: without this, books are a better source.

Going back to where I began: in his choice of what story to tell us, Soderbergh has, for me, left out all the most interesting stuff . We know from Salles that this idealistic young Argentinean with a profound sense of humanity and affinity for the ordinary and indigenous peoples of the Americas was first shocked and then outraged by the almost universal injustice from many different regimes, that dominated the lives of simple common men and women throughout the continents. We know he qualified as a doctor and was very widely read with a love of poetry from Robert Frost, Keats, Alberto Neruda; a deep interest in philosophy including Camus, Sartre, Kafka; and wider interests including Bertrand Russell, Buddhism, Aristotle and Freud. There is no poet, no philosopher in Soderbergh’s film.

Salles conveyed a powerful sense of a young man with an absolute commitment to the poor and oppressed: an idealist with an almost tangible air of tragic vulnerability about him; a young man with all the talents and an uncompromising, outspoken resistance to injustice that one felt could not, would not, survive long in an imperfect world. Soderbergh leaves the enigma intact, the contradictions unexplored. In the absence of letting the man, even his own conception of the man, emerge, he succeeds only in what he wanted to avoid most – simply re-inforcing the myth, enhancing the mystery, fuelling the popular fascination with celebrity and notoriety.

Perhaps this is the actual truth of the man with the best known human face on the planet. But there is much in Guevara’s own writing, in the world-shattering events in which he took part and helped to shape, that suggests otherwise. Thus Che is a disappointment – especially as we are still grappling with how to come to terms with and understand another charismatic, iconic figure, driven solely by ideology and a dangerous implacability before the demands of the everyday world in Osama Bin Laden. It is the contrast between these two figures that is perhaps most interesting – Che’s deep sense of humanity and injustice in this life, not the rewards of the next.

This is a brave, committed film, demanding and worth seeing – but neither the good intentions nor its worthy subject matter can disguise the fact that it simply does not really succeed as a work of popular art and no amount of sincerity makes it remotely Oscar material. Though that doesn’t meant it won’t get one – the Academy loves to look brave in recognizing ‘controversial’ films: any film that genuinely captured the power that has made Che Guevara in a sense part of the consciousness of most people on the planet, would scare the bejeesus out of them.

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