Saturday, October 25, 2008

London Film Festival Day 11 - CHE Parts 1 and 2

"I was sitting in first class with a hot towel on my face when I realised I was the right person to direct this film." Steven Soderbegh, introducing his 4 hour, 2 part biopic of revolutionary Marxist Ernesto "Che" Guevera at the London Film Festival.

"Maybe they didn't have a Q&A because they were so embarassed at how at how bad the film was?" Our Gmunden correspondent, leaving the cinema, 4 hours later.

CHE (THE ARGENTINE & GUERILLA) is an interminable, unedifying vanity project from director Steven Soderbergh, producer and lead actor Benicio del Toro and newbie writer Peter Buchman. It's a film that gives us no real insight into Che's politics or personality - indeed it perversely holds us at a distance to him. It's a film that gives us no real feel for his revolutionary career - perversely leaving Cuba before he has even entered Havana. It's a film that tells us nothing about his charisma or passion - nowhere in this film do I get a feel for why people would have put themselves in mortal danger to follow him.

Do we blame Soderbergh for having no over-arching vision for this story? Do we blame del Toro for his walking zombie performance? Do we blame the screen-writers for taking a decade of radical action and boiling it down to a series of monotonous, unexciting marches? Whatever the reason, CHE is quite frankly a disaster.

The movie is divided into two parts: THE ARGENTINE and THE GUERILLA. Producer Laura Bickman told us that they were to be released as two separate films rather than playing as a double bill, so that's how I'll review them here.

THE ARGENTINE opens with a patronising shot showing a map of Cuba, highlighting the name of each region and the position of the major cities. It's like Geography 101. It's a clumsy way to convey information and has zero artistic content. Perhaps the film-makers should realise that anyone who comits 4 hours to a Che biopic probably knows where Cuba is. We then enter into the main body of the film, which is framed by a scene in Mexico City where Fidel Castro (Demián Bichir) outlines his plan to invade Cuba, and persuades Che (del Toro) to go with him. In the final scene of the film, Che will agree, only if he can leave Cuba when the invasion is over and spread the revolutionary message to the rest of Latin America. The intervening two hours inter-cut the story of the invasion of 1956 with scenes of Che confronting the United Nations in New York in 1964.

The footage of the Cuban revolution is pretty monotonous. We see revolutionaries march through long grass a lot. Occasionally, Castro hurts Che by refusing to let him take command of troops. Che is, after all, an outsider, an intellectual, and better suited to training, inspiring, and treating illness, than strategic thinking. We also see flashes of Che's purist ethics. He wants his men to be educated, moral, above petty corruption. All these themes are fascinating, and a film pursuing them would've given real insight to Che's politics and personality. Sadly, these moments of clarity are only ever brief flashes. Other than that, we learn that war is quite boring. The footage from New York is similarly frustrating insofar as Soderbergh could've really investigated the reactions to the revolution from US politicians and other Latin American countries. After all, Che is preaching world revolution - h
ow threatening was that to the US and Latin American establishment? But once again, we get quick-cut, impressionistic scenes that only make sense if you come into the movie with a lot of prior knowledge.

CHE: THE ARGENTINE ends with Che on the road from Santa Clara to Havana. We never see him arrive. It's an odd ending - leaving the audience with little sense of closure. The movie finishes abruptly. This may work in a double-bill, but I doubt that anyone would give GUERILLA a chance after this dull, unenlightening, strangely neutered work. I learned nothing about Che that I didn't already know, and it's interesting to note that in the US, this first film is not being released at all (acc to IMDB).

CHE: GUERILLA is modestly more successful that CHE: THE ARGENTINE, but the benchmark is low. The first thing to say is that it looks like a completely different film. The shooting style and editing style are much more languid and patient - the narrative is linear - we are allowed a little closer, though still not close enough - to our hero.

The movie skips Che's entry to Havana and his period serving in the Cuban governemnt. It skips his failed attempt to start a revolution in the Congo and rolls right into his radical activities in Bolivia in 66/67. The revolution is hopeless and the film a monotonous and depressing inch by inch movement toward the inevitable execution. The Bolivian government is aided by the US, so instead of hapless Cuban troops who surrender at the first sign of violence, Che is facing crack special ops. The Cuban peasants were ready for revolution but the Bolivian peasants are unconvinced by his arguments. (Heck, so are we - we never see him as a charismatic Marxist evangelical). Worse still, the local Communists want nothing to do with him; he loses contact with Havana; and his foreign aides stupidly lead the Bolivians right to him. So what you get is a film about isolation and failure. A random bunch of men wander round the Bolivian countryside until finally they are cornered and shot. Portraits of failure and disillusionment can be captivating. Look at the brilliant, mournful THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD. But GUERILLA is just dull. We are never allowed to empathise with Che in the way that we entered the emotional drama betwee James and Ford.

If CHE: GUERILLA is better than THE ARGENTINE it's because there are odd moments of visual flair. The scene where some of the guerilla are gunned down in a river is beautifully done. And there is a scene where Che is injured and on the run on the slope of a ridge. At the top, silhouetted against the horizon we see a handful of special ops soldier. And then, in a flash of pure menace, these men are joined by tens of other until the horizon is filled with men bearing down on our hero. These moments are to be expected from a man with Soderbergh's experience and technical skill. They are, however, too few.

Soderbergh began the LIFF screening with a joke - that a man who flies first class is the wrong man to make CHE. That's too reductive. But still, it contains a grain of truth. Walter Salles made a brilliant film about CHE because he was passionate about the content, could relate to it and had something to say about it. Salles was, like Che, born into privilege in Latin America but has chosen to turn his back on the establishment (in this case, being the scion of a banking family) in order to make politically and socially aware films about the poor. I would love to know why Soderbergh came to this project and whether, in all honesty, he felt any real emotional attachment to it. Because there is little evidence of any love for the project in the final films.

CHE / THE ARGENTINE & GUERILLA played Cannes where Benicio del Toro won Best Actor, Toronto and London 2008. THE ARGENTINE went on release in Spain in September, opens in Mexico on December 26th; opens in the UK on January 2nd; in France on January 7th and in Argentina on January 29th. GUERILLA opens in Argtnina on November 13th; in Greece on November 27th; in the US on December 12th; in France on January 28th; in the UK on February 20th and in Japan in March.

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