Director Steven Soderbergh: 'Che' Is Not About Advancing Ideology

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 22, 2009

What is Steven Soderbergh thinking this time?

"Che," Soderbergh's biographical epic starring Benicio Del Toro as the Cuban revolutionary leader Che Guevara, has earned the filmmaker virtually instant criticism since making its debut at Cannes last May. And not just because the two-part movie, which opened last week and which IFC Films made available on video-on-demand yesterday, lasts more than four hours.

At Q&A sessions after early screenings of "Che: Part One" (129 minutes long) and "Che: Part Two" (128 minutes), Soderbergh has been pounded with questions about lionizing an "assassin" and "murderer." After "Che" opened in New York in December, one reviewer accused Soderbergh of depicting the physician-turned-guerrilla as "Jesus plus Abraham Lincoln with a touch of Moses and Dr. Doug Ross."

Through it all, Soderbergh has retained an air of detached equanimity. "I find that people have assumptions about why you would make something," he said during an interview at the Toronto International Film Festival last September. "In this case, I've had people ask me: 'How can you make a movie about a murderer? A terrorist?' What they don't understand is that I'm in support of everyone who appears on-screen. I have to be. I take the position of everyone who's on-screen. I'm not judging them one way or another.

"We all go through our lives feeling justified in behaving the way we behave," he continued. "And I have to present everyone who appears on-screen in that light, as though they believe what they believe. It's irrelevant what I believe. Of course, there's an assumption that if I make a movie about Che, then I believe everything Che believes. And of course that's not true. But I have to be inside of his point of view to make you feel how he feels. I don't know that there's any place for a person like me in the society that he was trying to make. I'm the poster child for a lot of the [stuff] that he was trying to eradicate. But that doesn't matter. I'm interested in him because of his extreme level of engagement."

Admittedly, unfettered capitalism has taken its share of hits recently, to which anyone with a 401(k) will attest. Still, "Che" is arriving in a movie marketplace where the No. 1 film last weekend was "Paul Blart: Mall Cop." "Che" has a posterior-numbing running time. It's in Spanish. And has no stars, except Del Toro and a blink-and-you-miss-it cameo from Matt Damon.

But Soderbergh is convinced that there's a market to be exploited in Guevara, who since his death has gone from guerrilla leader to political martyr to global pop-culture icon with, as Soderbergh puts it, "total brand identification."

"It's this crazy paradox that this guy who's the epitome of hard-core Marxist-Leninist socialism is this commercial brand that sells everywhere," Soderbergh said. "Everybody has seen that Korda image plastered on everything for their whole lives," he added, referring to the Alberto Korda portrait that has been reproduced on items from college dorm posters to finger puppets. "But they don't really know that much about him. I've always been convinced that the movie is going to find an audience. It's going to be interesting to see if my theory of Che being a commercial juggernaut [will] be borne out."

So far, so good. "Che" has been performing well in the 11 cities where it's opened -- including Washington, where it has an exclusive run at Landmark's E Street Cinema. (Del Toro will be there tonight to answer questions at two sold-out screenings.) Soderbergh has tweaked conventional Hollywood wisdom before. For every box office gem such as "Erin Brockovich" and "Traffic" and "Ocean's Eleven," Soderbergh has made an unclassifiable comedy like "Schizopolis," or a small neorealist murder mystery like "Bubble," or a retro pastiche like "The Good German."

As with "Bubble," in fact, Soderbergh is embarking on something of a business-model experiment with "Che," releasing it on video-on-demand while it's still in theaters. "I've never had an issue with simultaneous, all-formats, all-the-time releasing," Soderbergh explained this week at a news conference at the Sundance Film Festival. "We have this lucky circumstance where people can decide which version they want to experience."

If Soderbergh is taking risks with "Che," viewers may be surprised at how formally conservative it is. In many ways, it marks a return to old-fashioned presentation values not seen since the 1950s. The first half of "Che" is preceded by a somber musical overture, the second by an entr'acte -- courtly throwbacks to the era of grand motion picture "events" that have the added value of orienting viewers geographically and settling them into the immersive experience to come.

But as much as "Che" revives old-school ballyhoo, it can't be accurately described as a conventional biopic. "I certainly wasn't in a position to do something as radical as what Todd Haynes did, which I thought was terrific," says Soderbergh, referring to the 2007 Bob Dylan movie "I'm Not There," which he executive-produced. "But I also didn't want it to be typical. So I guess the process was really one of exclusion. ['Che'] almost ended up being shaped by what I didn't want to do and the scenes I didn't want to include."

And those scenes were? "In this case, any personal life. I just wasn't interested. I just felt like everybody in the jungle there has a personal life, and I'm not any more interested in his than theirs. I just don't care. What I care about is that this guy picked up a gun and went to fight for people he didn't know and never met."

For a more emotional, psychological portrait of Guevara's political evolution, viewers always have Walter Salles's 2004 "Motorcycle Diaries." Indeed, in many ways "Che" takes up where that film left off, beginning in Mexico in 1955, when Guevara first met Fidel Castro by way of his brother Raúl as they plotted to overthrow the dictator Fulgencio Batista. From there the film methodically follows Guevara as he becomes a skillful guerrilla leader and, after he and the Castros take control of the Cuban government in 1959, an international political rock star. The second half of "Che" follows him to Bolivia, where his campaign to foment a Cuba-style revolution met with disaster, and where he was ultimately captured and executed.

The most shocking thing about "Che" is how simple it is, stripped not just of any biographical or psychological exposition, but of the kind of artful revisionism that might otherwise be expected of a filmmaker of Soderbergh's temperament. "He's such a blunt person that to get too arty with this would really be wrong," Soderbergh explains. "I want the movies to be like blunt instruments. I'm not making tone poems here. You could do that, and part of me is drawn to that in general, but I just thought it wasn't appropriate here. The guy is a warrior. And I don't want to be oblique about it."

Soderbergh understands that no matter what movie he made about Guevara, he would encounter criticism. "If you've made this movie and everybody's happy, you've done something wrong."

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