A less-than-revolutionary 'Che' biopic

March 06, 2009|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,michael.sragow@baltsun.com

Che Part One and Che Part Two are being presented together these days as a four-and-a-quarter-hour presentation about the rise and fall of the godfather of exportable revolution in the mid-20th century. The title and length suggest a biographical epic, but it's neither biographical nor epic. It's as if the director, Steven Soderbergh, wanted to take tissue samples of Ernesto "Che" Guevara's political life.

Part One focuses on the Argentinian doctor joining Fidel Castro's Cuban revolutionary brigade in 1955 and rising to become Castro's right-hand man. Part Two centers on 1967, when he waged a futile and fatal attempt to stage a Marxist rebellion in Bolivia that would fan outward to all of Latin America. The movie has the wearying fascination of a mammoth enterprise wrought with clinical intelligence but without any inspiration or dramatic passion.

The "commitment" of the filmmaker and that of his star, Benicio del Toro, is unquestionable, yet it doesn't translate into insight or empathy, only into physical authenticity. The personal roots of Guevara's life of protest and conquest remain largely unexplored, as do all relationships except his battlefield friendships. (At one point, you're stunned to learn he has five children.)

It achieves coherence as a giant and basic rise-and-fall story. In Cuba, as a protege of Fidel's, Che can win the loyalty of those who doubt him as an outsider and exert his own influence on events. In Bolivia, without a native focus for a radical armed struggle (the Bolivian Communist Party reneges on a pledge of support), he cannot win the hearts and minds of the peasantry or proletariat.

Producer Laura Bickford has said this work started out as the Bolivian story exclusively, and grew to contain Cuba to give context. But these enormous chapters illuminate each other in such fundamental ways, you wonder why Soderbergh didn't cut between them in one picture, the way Francis Ford Coppola did when he jumped between the stories of Don Vito Corleone and Don Michael Corleone in The Godfather Part II.

Morally, of course, the Godfather movies are infinitely more complex. Soderbergh shies away from depicting Che as one of the key figures in the Cuban revolution's history of summary executions. (The field executions we see are presented as the totally justified elimination of debauched opportunists.) Che offers a rugged account of guerrilla warfare, but by the end makes its asthmatic, self-sacrificing hero come off as a holy fool.

Che ** (2 STARS)

(IFC Films) Starring Benicio Del Toro, Demian Bichir, Catalina Sandino Moreno. Directed by Steven Soderbergh. Rated R for language and violence. Time 257 minutes. Mostly in Spanish with English subtitles.

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