Toronto: Chris has seen Soderbergh's epic two-parter... CHE starring Benicio!
Hey folks, Harry here... Are you not dying of curiosity to see exactly what Soderbergh has done with the story of CHE? Here we have a figure in history that is considered as both Hero & Arch-Villain - all dependent upon perspective. And boy, can the sides argue Che. No matter what he's a fascinating figure in history worthy of an amazing film, and it seems that is what Soderbergh has give us. Here ya go...
Hi. This is my first review for AICN. Living in Toronto, I don't get the opportunities to see movies before they come out. But since I got the chance to here, and strongly felt I needed to share my thoughts about it, I wanted to send you this heartfelt review. Hope you use it. You can credit me as 'CM1986'. Thanks.
The past two nights, I had the pleasure of being a part of the first North American audience to see Steven Soderbergh's two-part meditation (to be certain, this is NO biopic) on the career of Ernest "Che" Guevera. Introduced both times by the director, producer (Laura Bickford), and star (Benicio Del Toro), 'Che (Parts 1 [The Argentine] & 2 [Guerilla])' is a film(s) certain to divide critics and audiences alike, a sentiment echoed ever since its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival. On one hand, many will see this a grand, sweeping achievement of artistic and technical proportions, while on the other, some will see it as an epic, inaccessible failure. You can firmly put me in the camp of the former, as in my humble opinion, the film(s) are a masterpiece of scope and vision.
Without going much into plot or the ubiquitous "personal connection" I have to the material, all I will say is that I went through my obligatory Che Guevara phase as a youth around the same time Soderbergh's 'Traffic' (a film I still rank near or at the top of the best films of the 2000s) came out, and ever since then, the notion of Benicio Del Toro inhibiting the role he was born to play has been something of a dream project for me. And, in finally getting the opportunity to see the picture, my expectations were quite high (tempered, though, by the mixed Cannes reaction). However, as I do with most 'auteur projects', I put a lot of stock into how the director himself wanted the audience to view the film. In this case, Soderbergh had previously expressed something like how this was "an unconventional narrative that is not necessarily meant to show you how this man came to be who he is, but rather, who is he is and what is was like to be around such a figure". And, my friends, this is the exact context one needs to keep in mind when watching both parts of 'Che' -- unconventional, and not about how or why, but who.
I won't go too much into specific scenes or give any spoilers, but here are some of my thoughts...
'The Argentine' and 'Guerilla' are perfect composites, each entirely different in style and tone from the other. 'The Argentine' boasts a narrative (though not your classic one) with an upwards trajectory. Knowing, how we do, that Che and Castro's Cuban Revolution succeeded, Soderbergh accordingly instills the first film with a running current of strong optimism. The lush, richly colorized, hyper-realist textures of his jungle and Cuban town scenes are reminiscent of 'Apocolypse Now' at its best, only here they provide a much-needed warm sentiment that this is a battle the rebels CAN and WILL win -- as in their sacrifices are not all for nothing. On a side note, the cinematography that conveys this in 'The Argentine' is so breathtaking, that it should be one of the film's few indisputed locks for an Oscar nomination. In 'Guerilla', however, we know this time that his Bolivian mission is doomed, and as a result, there is an ongoing sense of impending doom. The Bolivian jungle is bare and desolate compared to Cuba, the color in the shots are drained, and from these surroundings alone, it is clear from the outset that failure is certain. Whereas the first film was warm and inviting, Soderbergh makes sure that the second one is cold and bleak. The differences are like night and day, and Soderbergh's directorial choices in separating the two parts, not only thematically and narratively, but visually, are key in them working as a whole. While 'The Argentine' chronicles a rise, thanks in large part to Che's revolutionary spirit, 'Guerilla' documents a fall, due to those very same traits.
The centerpiece in each film is, of course, Benicio Del Toro's Che. Like the films in general, reaction to his performance has been split, with half of the critics calling it magnificently understated, and the rest calling it downright vacant. Again, I will go with the first group on this. As I'd said earlier, this film is a meditation, not a conventional biopic. Therefore, it isn't filled with your typical set-ups and payoffs, conflicts and resolutions, dramatic monologues, etc. So, Del Toro essentially plays it straight, giving a performance in the same vein as his Oscar-winning turn in 'Traffic'. Great actors show, don't tell, and here, it is all in his eyes, his expressions, his movements, the things he doesn't say, the lack of close-ups, etc. Consequently, one gets the idea they are actually watching Che Guevara, not an actor playing him, which is how I felt throughout such straightforward, overdone attempts as Will Smith's Muhammad Ali, Jamie Foxx's Ray, and Joaquin Phoenix's Johnny Cash. In fact, I put this performance, though entirely different in style, on the same level of overall effectiveness as Denzel Washington's Malcolm X, another instance of where the actor WAS his real-life counterpart, not simply imitating him. This notion is most prevalent in the brilliant, striking black-and-white sequences that are intercut throughout 'The Argentine', with Che speaking in front of the UN. It is here where Del Toro really lets loose in the role, more so than any other part in either picture, as he rips into his fellow delegates for allowing the influence of American Imperialism to corrupt them. Che is at his most confident and outgoing here, and thus so is Del Toro. As with the film's cinematography, I think an acting nomination for Del Toro should be a lock (more likely for 'The Argentine' than 'Guerilla'), though I think it is doubtful he will win -- hey, I can't think of many actors who have taken home even ONE Oscar for a purely foreign-speaking role (as he did in 'Traffic'), let alone two, which would be the case here if he got it for this.
Aside from the picture's stellar direction and mesmerizing star performance, 'Che (Parts 1 & 2)' also notably succeed in two key areas: their supporting turns, and their musical scores. In 'The Argentine' especially, Demián Bichir's effort as Fidel Castro is commendable. Though Javier Bardem was initially considered, I think his famous presence would have been a distraction. This Bichir fellow not only looks just like Castro, but he has his mannerisms down to the letter, and he provides a great charismatic foil to Del Toro's subdued Che. Also, in both films, even the somewhat-anonymous rebels and guerillas (Franka Potente of 'Run Lola' run included) are effective. They are given some good dialogue to work with, often humorous at times, which consistently kept the audience laughing late into both heavy efforts. In fact, I found myself actually growing quite attached to some of them, although many will just dismess them as men with beards in green fatigues. Finally, in regards to the music, each film is again differentiated by unique scores, with the first featuring pounding latin drums and an ascending piano pattern, and the second featuring a Spanish guitar and a dissonant electronic reverb (similar to what he used in 'Traffic') -- both themes instrumental in keeping us on the edge of our seats.
All of this is not to say the film is not without its fair share of flaws, although I really think it depends on what you are looking for in the picture in the first place that will primarily dictate what those flaws are. Listen, some people are going to flat-out dislike the movie, or be disappointed by it. 'The Argentine' and 'Guerilla' are a difficult combined four-and-a-half hours, no doubt about it. For instance, my girlfriend thought it, and I quote, "sucked" -- "too violent", "too sad", "not enough story". And that is because, straight up, 'Che (Parts 1 & 2)' is a bold, risky take on a subject matter that is not only sensitive to many, but that countless people have high expectations for. So, understandably, perhaps they demand a 'safe' take on it -- not some daring experiment. But I am a filmgoer who has a lot of faith in a proven director's vision, especially one as talented as Steven Soderbergh, and I am also one who gets excited by the prospect of seeing something DIFFERENT on screen. Not necessarily 'different' for the sake of being 'different' (I can't stand to pretentious, post-modern, artsy takes on things), but 'different' as in daring. And what some people will surely deem in the end as 'boring', I am going to go out on a limb and call this film(s) 'different', and in as good a way as possible. This is only one man's opinion, but a viewpoint I am sure will be shared by a lot of you out there once you see it for yourselves.
So, in closing, I have to say that, entirely from my own perspective, 'Che (Parts 1 & 2)' is a success, and an accomplishment that Steven Soderbergh and Benicio Del Toro can proudly hang their hats on. Neither 'The Argentine' or 'Guerilla' will break any box-office records, nor sweep the Awards season, but clearly, that is not what the duo was aiming for here. What they were going for was resolute, contemplative, defiant ode to the resolute, contemplative, defiant icon that Che Guevara was. And on those terms, they have succeeded admirably.
Hope you all will enjoy this as much as I did.