Steven Soderbergh’s two-part, four hour film about Ernesto “Che” Guevara (Benicio Del Toro), almost the entirety of its dialogue in Spanish, is nothing if not ambitious. However, anyone approaching this film expecting a conventional biopic will be disappointed. Despite the film’s length it concentrates only on certain parts of Che’s life and leaves out others. For example, we learn little about Che’s early life and his politicisation due to what he saw on a motorcycle journey through South America – something already covered in Walter Salles’s film The Motorcycle Diaries. The warmth of that film is not present in Soderbergh’s film, which is intentionally more detached and analytical.
Part One, subtitled “The Argentine”, deals with Che’s part in the Cuban revolution in 1958, culminating in the taking of Santa Clara, the decisive military victory of the conflict. This is intercut with Che’s address to the United Nations in 1964. In addition to the time-jumps, Soderbergh mixes colour with grainy (given the digital shoot, perhaps that should be “noisy”) black and white. Part Two (“The Guerilla”) is shot with a subdued, more naturalistic palette, and is a linear retelling of Che’s campaign in Bolivia, and the events leading up to his death. Che was shot at 4K resolution with the Red One camera, and the parts have different aspect ratios: 2.35:1 for Part One and 1.85:1 for Part Two.
A little advance knowledge of Che might be of use, such as a reading of Wikipedia or watching a documentary such as the one I reviewed for this site just over a year ago. Soderbergh begins each part with a map – of Cuba in the first part, the continent of South America in the second, slowly highlighting places and regions relevant to what follows. Yet if you’re expecting any particular insight into the man, you won’t get it. Soderbergh and Del Toro’s Che is the public figure: the leader, the revolutionary, the politician. We hardly ever see the private man. Instead, Soderbergh is attempting an examination of the revolutionary process, its methods and its costs. I’m not sure, on one viewing, if he really succeeds in this, but full marks for aiming high even if he does fall short. Yet there are many compelling scenes along the way: Soderbergh’s abilities as a director are certainly not in doubt. Del Toro, in almost every scene, gives a fine performance, backed up by a well-chosen supporting cast.
There are two versions of Che available. The “Roadshow” version, which is the one I saw, runs 257 minutes. It has an intermission and music playouts after each part, but no credits apart from a copyright notice at the very end. The individual parts, shown separately, run 126 and 127 minutes. Part One was released in the UK on 2 January and Part Two will follow on 20 February.