Friday, 11 May 2012

Che: Part One (2008, Steven Soderbergh)

Steven Soderbergh's depiction of Ernesto 'Che' Guevara's efforts in bringing around the Cuban revolution is a shocking yet refreshingly brazen take on the biographical film genre. The director clearly isn't precious with his subject but is wholly aware of not ticking any cliched boxes when it comes to this particular biography of one of history's most iconic figures. Che (Benicio Del Toro) is mostly shot in distant mid shots, often from behind, and very rarely indulging us (and Del Toro) with close-ups. Normally films of this nature hold their lead actors on vain pedestals, reaching for Oscar glory, though in this instance Soderbergh isn't playing ball. The film's scope is wide, providing us with a sweeping account of the guerrilla warfare, tactics and ideals that won the revolution rather than needlessly diving into Che's personal life. For those wanting to learn more about Guevara's early life and his catalytic reasons for his path, look no further than Walter Salles' wonderful The Motorcycle Diaries (2004).

Che: Part One makes no mistake in retreading covered ground, Peter Buchman's script is more concerned with the bigger picture of the conflicts, but on a smaller personal level with Che's weaknesses and mistakes under Castro's command. If anything Buchman and Soderbergh do all they can to ground this much praised icon, bringing him down from his mythical status, by keeping him at an objectively cold distance. This is far from the actor's vehicle we'd expect and a brave against the grain approach provides a biographical drama of a different kind. It refuses to conform to Hollywood rules of suckering audiences in to support its subject; Che is never made out to be a hero, though shown to be a humane and caring doctor he is also a cold leader capable of ordering the slayings of deserters. Revolutions are not won without bloodshed after all and we see him standby his actions before a United Nations General Assembly during one of few time frames the film erratically jumps to and from.

The film opens and closes in 1955 with Che's first encounter with Castro Fidel and his signing on as part of the 'July 26th movement'. It also flits between scenes from Che's 1964 press interview from New York, the guerilla warfare of 1957 Sierra Maestra, and the climactic battle for Santa Clara that secured victory. The Santa Clara segment is the closest thing Che: Part One gets to a war film, filmed with pristine clarity and grounded securely in realist combat, the rest of the film ignores or simply jumps prematurely away from battle. Reasons can be for Soderbergh to save it all for Santa Clara, as it is a brilliantly orchestrated segment (a train derailment being a highlight), or of course for Soderbergh to unashamedly keep us from settling into any specific space and to build characters. This leads to question whether Che: Part One is enough, with the cold distant execution of Che's persona and further distancing effects of its frantic non-linear editing, Soderbergh deserves praise for his conviction and refusal of the norm but it makes for a rather sterile exercise.

Benicio Del Toro needs no extra attention in order to make an impact and he was never going to get it here. One of the most electric screen performers working today, he draws the camera in and always makes for an intense presence, heightening any moment with as little as a fixed stare or even the flick of his shoulder. His performance is never in question and boy does he look the part, but as a film (or at least half of it) we're not given enough material that sticks, that resonates and makes us feel something, anything. At best we see Che suffering heavily with asthma, this well documented psychical flaw shows him as a fragile and delicate man making it incredible that a man as ill as he was conquered so much in such poor conditions. This is the closest we get to an individual human drama.

Unlike most biographical films Che: Part One doesn't pat itself on the back, ignoring any 'movie moment' temptation and with a slightly detached handle on its narrative, it does break the mould to an extent. Though not to desire the opposite of what Soderbergh has given us, the film is an awkward one to get to grips with, appreciating it while never given the chance to enjoy or to really learn anything new. At this stage it's only half of the story and perhaps part two which charts Che's failed efforts in Bolivia will fill some voids.

My review of Che: Part Two is here