The noxious thing to say would be that when Steven Soderbergh’s “Che” is whittled down and divided up into two solid-sized features for realistic theatrical consumption, it’s not going to be nearly as good as it is in the Brobdingnagian, barely finished form that screened here at Cannes 268 minutes, with no credits but with an intermission, during which the festival staff proffered brown bags stamped with “CHE” containing a bottle of water and half a sandwich, and smokers and non-smokers alike crowded onto the balcony to feverishly light up. And to be sure, there are resonances between part one and part two, with the first charting how Ernesto Guevara, played by Benicio Del Toro, became a comandante, braiding together pre- and post-Cuban revolution moments with the fighting, and the second closing in on his doomed campaign to foment an overthrow of the Bolivian government, ending in his capture and execution. But the latter half is really where it’s at. The former, which will become “The Argentine,” is functional, Soderberghian documentation: Guevara at dinner, debating over everything that needs to change; victorious, shot in black and white, being interviewed in New York, arguing on the floor of the U.N. and thanking Senator Eugene McCarthy at a cocktail party for the Bay of Pigs invasion and its united effects on the Cuban people; and arriving in Cuba with Castro, taking to the jungle and the art of guerrilla warfare, struggling through asthma attacks and outsider status, setting aside training as a doctor and becoming a commander who insists on the kind of unrelenting discipline one would expect from an enlisted army. It’s a sober go at finding the man behind the t-shirt, unglamorous, unromanticized, and also, alas, a stately slog.
Or maybe it’s just an exceptionally long, background-laden prologue to “Guerrilla,” which is linear, less efficient, more poetic and unhappy “The Assassination of Che Guevara by the Bolivian Special Forces.” Left unseen, though not unmentioned, in the caesura: Guevara’s divorce and remarriage (to Aleida March, played in the film by Catalina Sandino Moreno), the execution of hundreds of members of the Batista regime at La CabaÃ±a fortress, the Cuban Missile Crisis, Castro’s rise in power and Guevara’s unsuccessful trip to the Congo. It begins with Guevara, having vanished from the public eye, slipping into Bolivia, where he and friends from Cuba begin to recruit and train local forces for another enterprise in franchising revolution. Guevara’s half legend by now, and though he’s going by “Ramon,” potential guerrillas tremble when shaking his hand. A little older, a little weary, Guevara’s still a believer, though that belief is now cut with the knowledge that idealism goes better with overthrowing governments than with establishing and maintaining new ones.
Camped out in the Bolivian jungle, Guevara starts once more from the beginning, but nothing takes the national communist party, led by Mario Monje (Lou Diamond Phillips), won’t give them support, and the peasants have been seeded with mistrust. This time around they don’t seem to ever get to the fighting, just preparation, waiting, running and hiding, negotiating for goods to survive, and falling, one by one. Famous faces show up throughout all of “Che” in unexpected places: “Raising Victor Vargas”‘s Victor Rasuk is a 16-year-old recruit, Julia Ormond is actress/reporter Lisa Howard, Franka Potente is HaydÃ©e Tamara Bunke Bider. Strangest of all, though, is Matt Damon, who appears in “Guerrilla” as a Spanish-speaking German priest who claims to have been appointed by the peasants to request the guerrillas leave them alone, that Guevara and his forces aren’t Bolivian, that they’ll never be trusted outsiders once again. The days tick by on screen, approaching a year, as food grows scarce, run-ins with U.S. Special Forces-taught troops turn out to be devastating, supporters are slaughtered and, even if you didn’t know it was coming, it becomes obvious that Guevara is going to die there, far from his family and adopted home.
It’s something he seems aware of too, and it’s in the lingering ends of the film that Del Toro glows, his Che asthmatic, meditative in defeat and unfaltering, even when finally caught. “I believe in mankind,” he tells his guard, a statement of fact that precedes a preposterously guileless bid for escape, an all-in bet that doesn’t pay off. But it’s a belief that’s truly heroic, particularly in the face of the ugliness that quickly follows, and it’s one that Soderbergh has managed, in “Che,” to eulogize without also having to canonize the man to whom it belonged.
[Photo: “Che,” Laura Bickford Productions/Wild Bunch, 2008]
+ “Che” (Festival-Cannes.fr)