I am a huge fan of Steven Soderbergh. If nothing else, he should be given a lot of praise for taking such huge risks as a filmmaker. He is inventive and interested in trying out new genres and recreating old forms of filmmaking giving them a modern edge. So, he uses high profile, big budget films ("Oceans' 11", "12" & "13") to give himself some freedom to experiment with new different techniques ("The Good German"), different genres ("Solaris", "The Underneath") and riskier, low-budget projects ("bubble"). I think filmmakers who go out on a limb should be given more latitude and applauded for their courage. Even when the film doesn't completely work.
"Che" doesn't completely work. But Soderbergh still deserves a lot of credit.
Every time I hear of a new Soderbergh project, I begin to eagerly anticipate it. Such was the case with "Che"; his new film starring Benicio Del Toro as the revolutionary leader. I read the film would premiere in Cannes; in it's original four hour plus running time. Later, I read that it met a mixed reception and decided it would never see the light of day in American multiplexes, in it's original format. It would be edited. It would be broken into two films, released a month apart. It would never be the same as it was for the people at Cannes. How wrong I was. To receive consideration for the Academy Awards, the film has been released in it's original Roadshow format, four hours and forty minutes of running time with a twenty minute intermission, for one week. In January, the film will be released in two halves, with separate admissions for both. I decided to drag a friend to one of the few screenings and she was game. The plan was set.
Thankfully, the screenings were scheduled for a new, nice theater with reserved seats. I can't even fathom sitting for that long in some of the multiplexes that currently plague Los Angeles.
We would either experience a phenomenal new film or itch in our seats waiting for the film to end so we could escape and go home.
"Che" is a monumental undertaking for the viewer. You need to have the right mind frame and devote yourself to being carried away for the four hour plus running time. If you are cross, in a bad mood, stressed out, whatever, sitting for this long watching this film will not help. These feelings will only be amplified and you probably won't enjoy yourself.
Even if you enter the theater happy as a clam, as I did, you might leave the screening with mixed feelings, as I did. On the one hand, I felt parts of the film, parts of Del Toro's performance were exciting and unusual. But I was also itching in my seat and eager to escape five hours later.
"Che" opens with a graphic map of Cuba, showing us the various regions and major cities, giving us the geography of the island, getting us familiar with where we will be spending the next two plus hours. An interviewer (Julia Ormond), who never appears on screen, interviews Che during a visit to New York to address the United Nations. As he talks, we flash back to a brief meeting between Che (Del Toro), an Argentinean doctor, and Fidel Castro (Demian Bilchir). Then, Che is leading a group of revolutionaries through the Cuban mountains, trying to meet up with Fidel and Raul (Rodrigo Santoro, "300", "Love, Actually"). They wage battle against Bautista's army in many cities and finally, much later, win the upper hand, claiming victory in Cuba.
Seems pretty straight forward, doesn't it? Yes and no. The first half of "Che" concentrates solely on the battle for Cuba, but the action is broken up by the interview taking place in New York many years later. Grainy black and white footage set these sequences apart and in them, we get a glimpse of the leader Che would become. He bristles every time his driver asks if he is needed for the night. Che is not his boss; they are co-revolutionaries and are a team. These moments are interesting, but they are few and far between. But they do serve to break up the ongoing battle footage in Cuba and provide us with a brief glimpse of who and what Che would become.
The vast majority of the first half concentrates on the military battles to win Cuba. Che quickly becomes a leader of a squad and the various elements of Fidel's armies make their way together, fighting off Bautista's men all the way. It would be all but impossible to give a more detailed account of what happens in this first film. It's all but impossible for me to recall most of the individual points of any of these battles. Basically, they move from the jungles and mountains into the cities and soon gain control. But as you watch, Soderbergh seems intent on capturing every single defining moment of these battles.
And the first half is interesting. As you watch, you get a real sense for how dedicated both Del Toro and Soderbergh are in bringing life to this story. They want to create the definitive portrait of this man and you get this passion as you watch the film. They are intent on recreating so much of this man's quest to help free Cuba. As you watch, your eyes are riveted to the screen.
The film is being presented in a Roadshow Presentation. This used to be a more common practice. When the studios were first trying to fight the threat of television, in the Fifties, they threw a bunch of money and production values at movies, creating larger than life films and, more often than not, musicals. Often, these Roadshows began with an Overture and no titles. They also generally cost more because the studios wanted you to feel like you were going to something special. Unfortunately, the films presented in this fashion were a mixed bag. For every "The Sound of Music", there was a "Doctor Doolittle" and the practice faded away. In "Che", the film begins with a graphic map of Cuba and no credits. When the first film ends, an intermission follows allowing the viewer to stretch their legs, get a snack, and visit the restroom. But hurry back. You have another epic length film to consumer before you are through.
"Part Two" begins with a graphic map of South America and we quickly zero in on Bolivia. Again, the various regions and towns are highlighted, giving us a quick overview of the region. OK. "Part One", Cuba. "Part Two", Bolivia. I get it.
"Part Two" quickly becomes tedious. It is simply more of the same of the first part, with a few key exceptions. "Part Two" is told is a simple straightforward fashion. The interviewer is gone. These moments, as slight as they are, help to break up the relentless militia feel of the first story. In "Part Two", Che leads a group of revolutionaries through the mountains of Bolivia. But since Che has now achieved a certain amount of prestige, the government is not going to give up and fights him with everything they have. He also uses a pseudonym that doesn't seem to fool anyone. There are brief mentions made of other campaigns, but they are, apparently, unimportant to the story of this revolutionary. In "Part Two", Che's asthma begins to affect him and plays a part in his success or failure. A brief cough here and there leads to longer moments of inactivity, as he has to deal with a lack of medicine. I'll never forget when I went to see "Gorilla's in the Mist" with my mom. When Sigourney Weaver begins to cough throughout the film, my mom turned to me and whispered, in a sarcastic way, "I wonder what will happen to her". It isn't a subtle method of getting the situation across.
So "Part Two" is all about the battle and it becomes monotonous, tiring and boring.
Benicio Del Toro also deserves a lot of credit for taking on such a performance. He clearly gives it his all, every bit of emotion; every bit of sweat in the character is his. But because the film so heavily concentrates on the battles and fights for various revolutions, we miss key elements of this character's story. The performance isn't as well rounded, as it should be because we don't get all of the information for this character. After almost five hours of viewing, I still didn't know why this Argentinean doctor became involved in Fidel Castro's revolution in the first place. And that is not a good thing. If anything, after five hours, I should know what type of underwear Che preferred to wear.
Watching "Che" is an event, and an experience that I don't think any cinephile should do without. Soderbergh shoots the film with high def video, giving the jungles and forests a lush look and when they enter some of the villages in Cuba, peeling paint almost appears to peel off the frame. He did this for the look, the flexibility and the financial savings, but the viewer benefits from the saturated visuals. But it is not a great film, and for a viewer to invest almost five hours of their time, the film needs to be great. It needs to pay off, big time.
And it doesn't.
Perhaps it is better that they are planning to release the film in two separate parts in January. That way, you can go and see the better, more interesting "Part One". If you feel up to it, and your interest is piqued, you can then delve into "Part Two".
My guess is that you will probably stop at "Part One".
Now, I can only wait and anticipate Soderbergh's next project, "Cleo", a 3-D live action musical starring Catherine Zeta-Jones as Cleopatra. No, I'm not kidding.
My guess is that "Ocean's 14" won't be too far behind that.