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The Extra Long Life of 'Che'

Benicio Del Toro, with Catalina Sandino Moreno, plays the iconic revolutionary in Steven Soderbergh's epic.
Benicio Del Toro, with Catalina Sandino Moreno, plays the iconic revolutionary in Steven Soderbergh's epic. (By Sean Gallup -- Getty Images)
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By William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 23, 2008

CANNES, France, May 22 -- After Steven Soderbergh's 4-hour-and-28-minute epic film about the grueling guerrilla campaigns of the revolutionary hero and international male model Ernesto "Che" Guevara paused for an intermission, bedraggled columns of cinephiles stumbled from their seats into the lobby of Grand Theatre Lumiere, rubbing feeling back into their eyeballs. Ushers, acting as emergency medical corps, quickly administered fresh water and rations of Kit Kat candy bars.

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Troops huddled in the foyer to smoke last cigarettes and contemplate what was to come, which was the rest of the film. But discipline was strict, just a 15-minute respite and then once more into the breach -- though at least one guest broke down to covertly gobble McDonald's in a toilet stall.

Comrades, it is our duty to report: There were deserters.

Traitors! Too weak to sustain the continued emotional investment necessary to survive the long, tragic, long, doomed Bolivian campaign of Benicio Del Toro in Part 2 of "Che." The most highly anticipated movie of the Cannes Film Festival took a heavy toll. The premiere got underway at 6:46 p.m. and ended at 11:25 p.m. Upon seeing on the screen the words "Day 328," a faint moan could be heard in our section. But the struggle will continue. It must. Soderbergh does not yet have an American buyer for his film. Distribution or death!

Reaction to the movie was, as they say, mixed. It appears that some support Soderbergh and others have joined the résistance. At the film's conclusion, the audience at the world premiere rose and gave Soderbergh, Benicio and their cast of internationalistas a sustaining ovation, shouting "fantastico" and "bravo!" Soderbergh, stone-faced during intermission, finally broke into a smile and waved.

But Todd McCarthy of Variety expects it will be "back to the drawing board" for an "intricately ambitious, defiantly nondramatic" work that not only avoids the usual Hollywood biopic conventions, but forgets to include "any suggestion of why the charismatic doctor, fighter, diplomat, diarist and intellectual theorist became and remains such a legendary figure."

Meaning "Braveheart" it's not.

"The film reeks of authenticity but also self-indulgence. A potentially great performance by Benicio Del Toro in the title role is buried beneath Soderbergh's stylistic tics and an almost complete lack of dramatic tension," wrote Peter Howell in the Toronto Star. "An incredibly ambitious, highly detailed mess," according to Roger Friedman at FoxNews.com.

But Glenn Kenny of Indiewire found plenty to like in "Che," which "benefits greatly from certain Soderberghian qualities that don't always serve his other films well, e.g., detachment, formalism, and intellectual curiosity." James Rocchi of Cinematical calls the end result "masterful -- expressive, innovative, striking, exciting."

Perhaps it is just us, but we flashed on the HBO "Entourage" episode where Vince and the boys take their Pablo Escobar film to Cannes and it bombs. Did we mention that the Soderbergh film is 268 minutes long? In Spanish? That the work includes Che's speech to the United Nations, seemingly in its entirety? "Lawrence of Arabia" (we checked) did its job in 210 minutes.

At the news conference on Thursday, Soderbergh was dismissive and defensive. The filmmaker was asked, very politely, couldn't he have made his movie -- and introduced his Che to America -- in less time than it took to fly to Bali? Nope. "I can only make something I want to see," said Soderbergh, whose career has veered lately from fat and happy ("Ocean's Thirteen") to heartless and generally disliked ("The Good German").

You see, Soderbergh explained, there is so much context. You gotta have the context, or you wouldn't get Che. You have to have Part 1, which is the victory of the Cuban revolution, where the Argentine doctor fought alongside Fidel Castro, and won against all odds, to get Part 2, in which the iconic Che travels incognito to Bolivia to try to spark continental revolution, except the Bolivian peasants aren't having it and Che is hunted down by the military and the Yankees and shot like a dog.


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