On a recent episode of The Colbert Report, Stephen Colbert sardonically promises to ask Che star Benicio Del Toro, “what t-shirt he’s doing a movie about next.” To The Colbert Report’s key 18-30-year-old demographic, Ernesto “Che” Guevara has for years been just that: a t-shirt, a poster, or, as Del Toro himself put it later in that same episode, an “emblem” for a spirit of liberalism and rebellion largely divorced from Guevara’s actual actions and wrangled into a crass marketing tool. In his four-and-a-half-hour epic Che, director Steven Soderbergh deconstructs the t-shirt image of Guevara as youthful and charismatic hero and restores his ideologically complex and endlessly fascinating history.
Che is the anti-Hollywood biopic. Soderbergh and writer Peter Buchman wisely avoid the urge to tell Guevara’s life story in one grandiose narrative. Instead, they opt to depict in painstaking detail the two landmark guerrilla campaigns in which Che took part: the successful Cuban Revolution and the failed rebellion in Bolivia that ultimately led to his arrest and execution. Joined at their center by his brash and uncompromising appearance at the United Nations in 1964, the two tales form a neat arc that encompasses Che’s meteoric rise to international prominence and his swift descent to an inglorious death in a poorly conceived attempt to foment a larger, Latin American uprising.
Tellingly, people involved with the production of Che, such as Soderbergh, Buchman, and producer Laura Bickford, refer to the project as two movies rather than one epic movie in two parts. Indeed, the filmmakers have imbued each half with a unique production aesthetic that reflects the themes of its subject matter. Soderbergh films Part One in a wide, 2.35:1 aspect ratio suited to its sweeping battle scenes, particularly the decisive battle of Santa Clara. Part Two, described by Soderbergh as “more of a thriller” than Part One, appears in a more claustrophobic 1.85:1 ratio. The difference is subtle yet effective: The Bolivian campaign is characterized more by psychological trials than military ones, and the unsettled atmosphere benefits from the tighter visual focus. Likewise, the two films feature completely different musical scores. A martial theme underscores the building momentum of the successful Cuban Revolution, while discordant ambient sounds interjected throughout the Bolivian campaign heighten the sense of isolation and confusion among the increasingly desperate and pessimistic rebels.
Yet two common threads bind the films together in their assault on the cult of Che: Soderbergh’s bold and untraditional cinematography (he acts as his own Director of Photography, using the pseudonym “Peter Andrews”) and Del Toro’s remarkably understated performance in the title role. Determined to avoid the visual clichés of the biopic, Soderbergh frames Che with an awkward, wandering handheld camera that often leaves him at margins of the screen or off it entirely. A lesser director might have filmed Che’s inspirational speech to his men in Part One with a stationary camera or using a smooth pan, most likely from below to give him a towering, godlike appearance, as orchestral swells climaxed with his bold proclamation of impending victory. Soderbergh defies this traditional Hollywood logic, weaving his camera in and out of the ranks of the soldiers, allowing their heads to obscure Che as he speaks with a measured intensity. Soderbergh's visualization of Che’s death truly subverts the iconic headshot seen on countless t-shirts worldwide, steadfastly refusing to let Che leave our screen in a blaze of glory and reinforcing the film’s deep ambivalence about his actions and motivations.
This tactic could come off as ineffective and self-indulgent if not for the stunning subtlety and versatility of Del Toro’s performance in the title role. Del Toro does everything in his power as an actor to breathe humanity back into the emblem that Che has become over the years. He sniffles and coughs while he speaks to his soldiers; he absentmindedly scratches a cast on his arm, reminding us that before there was Che the Poster, there had to be Ernesto the Man. Del Toro's nuanced take on the iconic revolutionary prevents him from reprising the unimpeachable Christ-like figure depicted in 2004’s The Motorcycle Diaries. At times, we see Che as a humanitarian, using his medical training to help the peasants that he encounters throughout his campaign, yet we also know that his military success hinges on winning their support. Similar dual motives inform his efforts to educate the poor Cubans who join his revolutionary army. Del Toro’s Che gives aid with the same stone-faced calm he wears as he orders the execution of several deserters in Part One and steals goods from shop owners who helped the Bolivian army in Part Two. Del Toro plays Che as equal parts principled idealist and brutal pragmatist.
Yes, four-and-a-half hours is an eternity for a director, any director, to ask his audience to give to his work. IFC Films understands this and will take the unique steps of releasing Che to Video on Demand while it is still in the midst of its (very limited) theatrical run. If you are interested in what may be the most balanced film possible on such a divisive historical figure, or simply wish to see a director and his star working in top form under their own uncompromising conditions, you owe it to yourself to see Che, whether it is in a darkened theater or from the comfort of your living room couch.