When I picked out the choices for this marathon of Steven Soderbergh's work, I hesitated to include Che. The two full-length parts run for more than four hours combined, and the subject felt more like a history lesson than an exciting film. I wasn't much of an expert on the famous guerrilla fighter, and the co-opting of his image on t-shirts on another materials was off-putting. That said, I decided that these two films represent a key part of Soderbergh's recent career. Would my choice pay off? Let's get to the questions to find out!
Che: Part One – Directed by Steven Soderbergh; Starring Benicio Del Toro, Julia Ormond, Demian Bichir, Rodrigo Santoro, and Catalina Sandino Moreno
So, what's this story about?
Ernesto "Che" Guevara travels to Cuba in 1956 to join Fidel Castro's 26th of July Movement to overthrow the government of Fulgencio Batista. The physician becomes a revolutionary leader who trained militias for guerrilla strikes against the much larger forces. Che focuses on educating the fighters while their power increases. His men take extremely dangerous strikes against superior numbers, which makes the success of their venture unlikely. The story jumps between this time period and Che's appearance before the United Nations in 1964, where he speaks out against the United States and other Western countries.
Does this film show more of "indie Soderbergh" or "mainstream Soderbergh"?
Che, Part One provides an intriguing mix of the indie and mainstream sides of Soderbergh's persona, and it's an excellent combination. Working for a sizable budget, he presents the scope of the conflict while focusing more on the personal interactions within Che's group. Considering the interests of general audiences, this might tip closer to the indie genre, but I expect it would surprise people. I was gripped from the start and believe it's one of Soderbergh's best films. He employs a deliberate pace, but it works because it gives us time to understand both Che and the composition of his armed group.
What are the key themes of this film?
Also known as "The Argentine", this film explores the reasons for the revolution without preaching a certain viewpoint. We spend most of the story with Che, so his goals are understandable. It's easy to identify with the situation without completely agreeing with his methods. The rare views of Batista's forces reveal some brutal activity, which just reinforces the need for a revolution. This makes sense because we're seeing the country from a specific perspective. Soderbergh effectively contrasts the battles in Cuba with the U.N. speech (shot in black and white), which shows Che's intense passion. It shows the difference between his associates in the two eras, who have switched from Cuban peasants to rich idealists. Che seems uncomfortable among the U.S. elites, but he knows how to play the game so he can present his views to a worldwide audience.
Are the characters believable and fully drawn?
Definitely. Benicio Del Toro gives one of his best performances in a role that would kill the movie if it wasn't convincing. He never overplays Che's intelligence or passion but still reveals how he could inspire such loyalty. His methods can be brutal, but they rarely seem unnecessary given their cause. This performance reminds me just how great Del Toro can be in the right role. Demian Bichir also shines as Fidel Castro with very limited screen time. When he reappears later in the film, we observe the subtle changes from a more genial intellectual into a hardened leader. Generally speaking, this film has countless small roles that drift in and out of the story and add considerable depth. The actors playing the parts of peasants and soldiers bring a stable and important presence to support Che's story. Finally, Catalina Sandino Moreno provides an interesting love interest as a character who also feels essential. Che and Aleida's subtle connection stays in the background but clearly grows as the revolution progresses. I expect she'll play a larger role in the second film.
What are some of the most memorable scenes?
The battle sequences aren't shot in the crazed manner of movies like Saving Private Ryan or Black Hawk Down. Instead, they're presented in straightforward fashion from the revolutionaries' perspectives. A highlight is the climactic showdown in Santa Clara, the last holdout before overtaking Batista's army. Fighting directly in the streets as civilians rush out of danger, they employ clever tactics like derailing a train to sidetrack the enemy. Another compelling scene involves the execution of rogue fighters who used the Castro name to rape and murder innocent peasants. The direct manner in which Che takes out these guys is stunning. This striking moment provides the perfect example of how he maintains control while proving his status as a common man. Che deals with the situation in front of everyone, which is no easy task considering the hurdles they've overcome together.
How does this movie fall within Soderbergh's career?
Che, Part One is a remarkable achievement that ranks among the best films of Soderbergh's career. It's an intriguing portrait of a complex, intelligent guy who played a key role in Castro's revolution. Del Toro received several acting awards for this role, and they're well-deserved. I can't believe that he didn't receive an Oscar nomination for this performance. It's a believable portrait that doesn't make a clear statement about the validity of his actions. Soderbergh presents the situation and lets viewers draw their own opinions. I can't wait to check out the second half of this highly underrated epic.
Later this week, I'll rejoin Benicio Del Toro in Bolivia for Che, Part Two.