Che Part 1: The Argentine dir. Steven Soderbergh
Starring: Benicio Del Toro, Catalina Sandino Moreno
Guest review by Blair Stewart
The first of a two-part chronicle on the life of the Marxist revolutionary, "Che Part 1" for its half story is a success in its unconventionally direct nature. The life of Ernest 'Che' Guevara' was cinematic, and Steven Soderbergh and Benicio Del Toro in their career defining roles capture that vitality by removing many of the cliches found in previous bio-pics.
The central conflict of 'The Argentine' is on two levels: On one, the Cuban battlefields as the callow guerrilla fighting ground for Fidel Castro's movement towards a corrupt Havana. On another New York in 1964 with Che's myth forming post-victory as he speaks at the United Nations in defence of "Cuba Libre" and what he has wrought throughout the world politically.
In the jungle we view Che from Soderbergh's clinical distance as Che shifts from a reticent doctor to become the fearsome Commandante. Che is often filmed in the peripheral instead of the expected central frame, like one would view a fellow soldier in a battle. This distance is also established in the lack of focus on the supporting players around Che, with Demian Birchir briefly portraying a memorable Fidel Castro and Catalina Sandino Moreno as his future wife acting as moths to his flame. The solidarity in Che's rhetoric seeps into the frame, with his story becoming secondary to the movement of the guerrillas.
As Guevara, Del Toro's Cannes award-winning performance is natural in its lack of "Oscar moments" barring the UN speech, he's reticent and occasionally a bastard, but also has a believable charisma as the successes build in the revolutionary campaign. There has been criticism for Del Toro's quiet internalization of the role, but his choices make the film much more honest without the expected manipulation of mainstream biographies.
One of the surprises is the complete emphasis placed on battle, a life story told by campaign march without the heroic background score. Soderbergh's combat direction is reminiscent of cinematic war pre-Peckinpah and "Saving Private Ryan", unconcerned with gore and the action is clear-cut. There is an expected jump in film stocks and colour between time periods as Soderbergh has done in previous efforts like "Traffic", a frenetic black and white newsreel jumble worthy of the NFB in the 1960's scenes, and spotless naturalism in Cuba that reinforces the optimism of the fledgling Marxists. In a suspect bit of editing though, Che's role in the questionable execution of army deserters and Batista's men after the war is downplayed significantly, a possible opportunity lost for another layer to this story.
Sadly, "Che" was recently shut out of this year's Oscars despite the intelligence and patience with which it treats its subject. Despite the oversight I recommend you see the first part of an epic look at an epic life, and I hope the second half is on par with the first.