Monday, January 26, 2009

Che

I was originally going to create a combined version of these reviews to describe my feelings about the strengths and weaknesses of the combined films, but that seems kind of redundant. The main thing I noticed is that there is not very much discussion of the time between the Cuban Revolution and Che's ill-fated trip to Bolivia, aside from the framing sequence of the first movie, which covers his 1964 trip to address the UN in New York. I wonder about this; is it because the two books Soderbergh and company opted to film didn't cover that period? (Speaking of which, movies about a figure who is as much an arguably manufactured icon as Guevera might have done well to use sources other than his own autobiography.) Is it because it might have shown Che in a more obviously negative light? I wonder about it, because it really seemed to me that the key to the second movie is in that time period: Something made him decide to leave his family and turn his back on building and solidifying the nation he had helped to bring about in Cuba, and I wondered what it was: Failure, finding himself unsuited for the sort of job where things cannot be resolved with gunfire, power and personality clashes with the Castros? The movie doesn't give us much insight into it, which is too bad; knowing the forces that drove him to Bolivia might have enhanced the film.

Of course, I suspect the packed house that I saw the film with saw the film differently than I did; despite my living in what is often called the "People's Republic of Cambridge", my politics tend to be at the opposite side of the square (I don't think a libertarian society is what's needed now, but it is what we should work toward). Thus, the mostly-favorable biography probably played better to them.

One interesting fact I learned, well worth sitting next to a guy who really freaked out excessively over my sloshed soda (ding those tops up even a little and they just don't stay on when you try to pick the cup up) is that Guevera would only talk to leftist interviewers during the swing through New York that the first part depicts. That strikes me as a man trying hard to control the perception others have of him, as opposed to the humble and open man the movie seems to be pushing on us (at least on the surface).

Che Part One (The Argentine)

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 18 January 2009 at Landmark Kendall Square (Roadshow Presentation)

At various times, Steven Soderbergh's ambitious Che Guevera project has been described as one very long picture and as two, and I'm not sure which is how it started and which is considered the definitive experience. To further muddy the waters, I saw Che as a single feature with an intermission, but it separates into two distinct (though connected) films in my mind. Part One is the weaker of the two, but it does set up themes that are important for the second.

The film opens (after a graphical lesson in Cuban geography) in 1964, with Ernesto "Che" Guevera (Benicio Del Toro) in New York to address the United Nations. The bulk of the time is spent in flashback, as we follow Guevera's first meetings with Fidel Castro (Demián Bichir) in Mexico. From there, they go to Cuba, where Guevera first serves as the rebel army's medic before being placed in charge of a new column which advances 150 on foot from the mountains in the southeast to the central part of the island. We're introduced to many other members of Castro's army, including Aelida (Catalina Sandino Morena), a messenger who would eventually become Guevera's wife.

Aficianodos of this segment of history and people with particular interest in Che Guevera will likely find this film intriguing, while the rest of us may find it very dry. The film probably doesn't spend as much time introducing us to various people - literally, often with the template of "I'm Che." "I'm Ramon." "How old are you?" "Twenty." - as I remember, but does so enough for the audience to notice the pattern. We can infer some purpose to it - noting that Guevera's stances on using teenagers and how his soldiers should be able to read and right weaken as time passes, maybe, although there's not much outward indication that the situation is becoming desperate. It comes across as Soderbergh and company wanting to touch upon as many figures from the Cuban Revolution as possible for completeness's sake. We are basically being told that these people are important historically, even though they don't obviously affect the film's narrative.

The film also has what feels like an overly-sympathetic view of its title character, at least at first glance. The film frequently takes great care to note that Che insists upon only engaging military targets, and the interview segments tend to present him at his very best, saying things like how love for the people is the most important trait for a revolutionary to have. Che's better qualities are so directly presented to us that it's very difficult to see his bad side, which must be inferred: There's a powerful ego to be seen in his advancing on the last offensive without waiting for the group his was supposed to meet, and how concerned he is about who will be allowed to speak from the podium and the floor. Perhaps the most telling scene is when he expresses relief that another physician has joined the cause, so he can shift his attention from saving lives to ending them. There are several moments like that in the film, but they must be hunted for, compared to the praise that is clear for all to see.

Benicio Del Toro mostly seems interested in playing the heroic Che, albeit in a fairly restrained manner. I will readily admit that I may be missing a lot in translation; his entire performance is in Spanish and there may be intonations I don't catch by concentrating on subtitles or the overlapping voice of Che's translator. Del Toro does get across the man's passion, and how uncomfortable he is during his trip to New York. The rest of the cast is good, although not a one of them manages to stand out as terribly memorable.

Soderbergh does manage to make a fairly impressive movie visually: For as much as this is the story of one man, the battle sequences are grand, filled with people and shot from interesting angles. The digital photography is is sharp and clear, capturing the lush colors of the jungle beautifully. Scenes in New York, by contrast, are shot in grainy 16mm monochrome; the contrasting style is an often-used idea, but one that works well enough.

Seen alone, Che Part One is likely a bit unsatisfying, perhaps needing the second part to bring the title character's faults into focus. Even with that second half, it still comes across as striking an imperfect balance, presenting the facts of the Cuban Revolution without much emotion and making the audience work at finding Che an interesting or complex figure.

Also at EFC.

Che Part Two (The Guerilla)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 18 January 2009 at Landmark Kendall Square (Roadshow Presentation)

As Part One did, Che Part Two opens with a geography lesson, this time showing us the landlocked nation of Bolivia. We're also given a text scroll telling us that Che Guevera suddenly disappeared from Cuba in the mid-1960s. This, and the sequence of Guevera disguising himself and making his way to Bolivia, isn't really necessary, but you've got to get from Point A to Point B somehow, especially since what comes after Point B is the more interesting part of the whole undertaking.

Guevera (Benicio Del Toro) arrives in Bolivia looking to accomplish there what he and the Castros did in Cuba, forging a group of ragtag group of rebels into a fighting force. It's complicated, though - he goes by the name Ramon in order to disguise the fact that a foreigner is leading their campaign, even though almost everybody knows who he really is. This includes President Rene Barrientos (Joaquim de Almeida), who is more than happy to have the Americans train his men to hunt Che down.

This movie is the story of Che's downfall, and, unlike Part One, it actually feels like a story. It's a rise and fall, but a steady one; we can see how the noose tightens around Che, and we've got room to speculate about whether it's mainly because of the force Barrientos throws at him or because Che is disconnected from the people he's fighting for. The pursuit provides a structure, and it is intriguing to watch things build and fall apart.

Del Toro still plays Che as something of an enigma, but he's a bit more of an intriguing enigma now. There is an aura about him, and we do wonder about his motivations - is this a man so possessed of revolutionary fervor that he feels the constant need to return to the front lines to lead the oppressed, or a thug who has found that he does not fit anywhere but the battlefield? Del Toro clearly leans toward the former, showing us Che gutting through powerful asthma, although he does perhaps overdo some of the better-known traits (aside from the asthma, odd attention is called to his pipe-smoking). During the Q&A following this screening, Del Toro mentioned that this second part was shot first, in roughly reverse-chronological order - I'm guessing so that he could bulk up and trim his beard during filming rather than vice versa, so perhaps the rough feel toward the end was just Del Toro getting a feel for the character.

The rest of the cast is good, as well; there are some more recognizable faces here - Franka Potente as the band's sole female member, de Almeida as the puffed up general trying to squash him. Unlike Part One, most of the supporting characters appear to have a part to play, rather than just showing up to have their names mentioned. I especially liked the old man pulled between Che's guerrillas and the army.

Although I felt that this second part was a superior film, and I felt that they were distinct films with their own stories and story arcs, part of what makes the second film strong is that we retain thoughts of the first; Che wouldn't quite be set up for this fall without the success and resultant arrogance we'd seen before. This film tells its story somewhat better, but no story of a life truly feels complete from just a single part.

Also at EFC.

1 comment:

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