'Che' Brings a Revolutionary Icon to Life

Catalina Sandino Moreno as Aleida Guevara and Benicio Del Toro as the revolutionary leader. In this powerful film, Che Guevara is portrayed as a humanist martyr with grand, if radical, ambitions.
Catalina Sandino Moreno as Aleida Guevara and Benicio Del Toro as the revolutionary leader. In this powerful film, Che Guevara is portrayed as a humanist martyr with grand, if radical, ambitions. (Daniel Daza - Ifc Films)
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 16, 2009

When viewers emerge, blinking and benumbed, from watching "Che" for four hours -- no, that's not a typo -- they're likely to feel in need of some sobering up, as if they've taken a slow, almost hallucinatory trip outside their bodies. Indeed, probably the best way to encounter Steven Soderbergh's marathon Spanish-language epic about the last years of guerrilla leader Che Guevara is to let go of words like "film" and "movie." Those words seem woefully inadequate to the task of describing such a mesmerizing, fully immersive cinematic experience.

In this sprawling yet surprisingly taut retelling of Guevara's life during the Cuban revolution and his ill-fated involvement in bringing the fight to Bolivia, the man whose face has become an omnipresent glyph comes into sharp, sympathetic focus, by way of an extraordinary performance by Benicio Del Toro. By the end of "Che," which is being shown in special back-to-back screenings of two two-hour movies, viewers will likely emerge with indelibly vivid, if not more ambivalent, feelings about Guevara than the bumper-sticker image they walked in with.

If "Che" doesn't entirely banish that image, taken by the photographer Alberto Korda in 1960, it goes a long way in reminding viewers that there was a flesh-and-blood man behind it. After a brief preamble, "Che: Part One" begins in Mexico City in 1955, when Raúl Castro first introduced Guevara to his brother Fidel. After a dinner spent discussing Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista's murderous regime, Cuba's grinding poverty, illiteracy and poor health care, and a punishing balance of payments with the United States, Guevara signs on with the brothers, convinced that armed struggle is the only way to topple the oppressive order.

A year later they're on a boat bound for the Caribbean island, where Guevara -- who trained as a physician in his native Argentina -- will become an adroit guerrilla fighter, a trusted military and moral ally of the Castros and a powerful symbol of the two-year war that ended on New Year's day in 1959.

Working from a script adapted from Guevara's diaries, Soderbergh methodically revisits the key battles and strategic turning points of the fight, intercutting scenes in the Sierra Maestra with sequences years later, when Guevara spoke at the United Nations in 1964. Viewers expecting an experimental "meditation on the life of" biopic of Guevara are in for a much more literalistic take, as Soderbergh plays it utterly straight, delivering his story in neat, legible episodes that are gratifyingly free of starchy speechifying and weighty exposition. In fact, the only time Guevara declaims is when he's inveighing against northern imperialism in the U.N., a spellbinding reenactment made all the more convincing by Soderbergh's choice to film it in black-and-white 16mm film.

It's during his time in New York that Guevara becomes a global rock star, attending soirees with intellectuals and learning the ways of mass media that include the benefits of a little face powder before going on TV. "That was a good party," his bodyguard says knowingly, after Guevara has met Sen. Eugene McCarthy and sarcastically thanked him for the Bay of Pigs invasion.

Whereas the New York scenes possess the you-are-there frisson of cinema verite, the sequences back in Cuba -- which Soderbergh filmed using a brand-new digital camera called the RED -- bristle with an altogether different kind of immediacy, wherein Guevara and his surrounding landscape are delineated with dazzling clarity and crispness. It's a lucid visual style distinctively suited to a man who never doubted his own motivations or violence as a means to realize them, even when Fidel tries to convince him of the benefits of compromise. Fidel, by the way, is played in another uncanny performance by Demián Bichir, who with a gifted ensemble of actors brings life to Cuban revolutionaries who have historically been overshadowed by their more famous counterparts.

Fights between the mountain guerrillas and the urban communists, struggles with deserters, disagreements about tactics -- they're all here, conveyed in tight, economical scenes that, as they accumulate, exert an almost transfixing power. Through it all, Guevara is portrayed as a man apart, often sitting to the side smoking his pipe or reading, as well as a paragon of conscience, ordering an ally to return a stolen car or leaving a note with some money when his patrol cadges some corn from a peasant's field. But mostly he's portrayed as a man in motion, putting his theories into slogging, one-foot-in-front-of-the-other practice day after day in the mountains. ("Che" provides a felicitous bookend to Walter Salles's 2004 portrait "The Motorcycle Diaries," which explored the more psychological and emotional roots of Guevara's politics.)

When "Che: Part Two" gets underway, it's 1965 and Guevara has already tried to export the Cuban experiment to Congo and Venezuela. Under an assumed identity, he travels to Bolivia, where he's confronted by young, undisciplined troops, an unreliable and suspicious peasantry, inhospitable terrain and well-trained military opponents aided by Vietnam-tested U.S. advisers. With the emerald greens and deep shadows of Cuba giving way to the sere, colorless Bolivian scrub, even the landscape seems to have turned against Guevara, who makes his wheezing, asthmatic way to capture and execution as if in a death foretold.

True to his restrained, unemphatic style, Soderbergh resists all calls to melodrama during Guevara's final moments. Still, as dispassionate as "Che" seems to be in simply focusing on what Guevara did, there's no doubt where Soderbergh's sympathies lie. From scenes of Guevara insisting that new recruits learn to read, to Del Toro's unfailingly gentle portrayal of a man in love with "humanity, justice and truth," their Guevara hews much closer to the humanist martyr of Korda's iconic photograph than the man known as a murderer and assassin by his detractors.

But to call "Che" a hagiographic tract or even straight-up political-military thriller doesn't quite hit the mark. As content as Soderbergh is to let viewers fill in their own blanks regarding the revolution Guevara put into place, he's interested in him above all else as a technician. The whys and wherefores are almost afterthoughts compared with Soderbergh's obvious fascination with the stamina, insight, boldness and sheer skill that Guevara brought to an impossibly arduous enterprise. Those qualities that made Guevara such a singular leader of men and women in the jungle aren't too far from what's needed to marshal a cast, crew and sundry apparatchiks on a film set. Soderbergh has created an absorbing, even hypnotic cinematic experience in "Che," which for all the depth and detail of its portrayal of a consummate man of action, turns out to be a stirring homage to the trials and glories of filmmaking itself.

Che: Part One, Che: Part Two (129 minutes, 128 minutes, in Spanish with subtitles, at Landmark's E Street Cinema) are rated R for some violence.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company