Plenty of people are going to be talking about Steven Soderbergh's Che Guevara biographical films -- The Argentine and Guerrilla, screened at Cannes tonight as one presentation simply called Che -- over the next few months. There will be arguments about the politics of the films; there will be discussions of whether or not the films have any emotional center; there will be questions around, when the films get some kind of U.S. distribution deal, exactly how they should be released -- two films released staggered throughout the last half of the year or cut down to one three-hour film or shown as a long, big double bill that presents the separate films back-to-back. There will be talk of if Benicio Del Toro deserves a Best Actor nomination for his work as Guevara, or if Soderbergh's portrait of Che is too flat to engage us; I can easily imagine discussions of the look and feel of the film, shot in high-resolution digital with all the craft and care Soderbergh usually brings to shooting on film. I can't predict how all of these questions and possibilities will play out, but I can say -- and will say -- what a rare pleasure it is to have a film (or films) that, in our box-office obsessed, event-movie, Oscar-craving age, is actually worth talking about on so many levels.
One of the architects of the Cuban revolution who moved on to try and spread the communist cause in the Congo and Bolivia before being shot by Bolivian authorities in 1967, Guevara (played here by Benicio Del Toro) has a conflicted, often-debated role in 20th century history. To many, he's an icon; to most, he's an image on a t-shirt. To some, he's a murderer; to others, an inspiration. Che (which I'll use throughout this review to refer to both films for reasons of clarity) does not show us the man behind the T-shirt; instead, it takes the more interesting direction of showing us how the man wound up on the T-shirt. Che doesn't wallow in Guevara's personal life -- this is how he felt, this is how he loved, this is what he believed, this made him what he is -- but simply shows us some (not all) of the events in Guevara's life and how they changed him and changed history. The first half of Che feels like nothing less than Lawrence of Arabia, as a charismatic outsider helps fight, and win, a seemingly impossible series of battles; the second part is a little more sad and thoughtful, as we witness Che's tragic flaw where, after creating a revolution in Cuba, he simply could not stop, and tried to re-create something irreproducible.
Bad biographical dramas try to tell you everything about a person's life; good biographical dramas leave you inspired to find out the things not on-screen. Che is, by that yardstick, a very good biographical drama. The first half, The Argentine, covers the Cuban revolution, and Soderbergh's direction follows as Peter Buckman's script leaps between years. Che's being interviewed in New York, 1964 shown in black-and-white, years after the victory in Cuba; Che leans over the railing of a ramshackle boat that's taking 82 revolutionaries to try and overthrow the Batista regime ruling Cuba in 1957; Che and his rebels fight building-to-building through the sun-scorched streets of Santa Clara in 1958. There's no narration, only a few titles to establish time and place; it's assumed you're a grown-up who can follow along with the film, and considering how few films extend us that courtesy, it's a welcome pleasure.
The second film, Guerrilla, has a few lines explaining the intervening six years (which, it must be said, contain some of Guevara's more extreme acts of murder and violence in the name of building a new Cuba) before showing us his travels to Bolivia and his battles there. This is a sadder, bleaker film; the brilliant victories of the first movie are left behind for a series of deaths, defeats, regrets; what happens when you realize the nation you're risking your life to change may not want you to change it? Legend has it that Terrence Malick tried, and failed, to film a Guevara biography for years; Soderbergh, a student of film as well as a film maker, seems to acknowledge and pay homage to that thwarted ambition with gorgeous shots of simple things; the wind in trees, the light on water, the dimming of the spirit visible on the faces of those who know they've lost.
Soderbergh serves as director, cinematographer and editor here, and the end result is masterful -- expressive, innovative, striking, exciting. Shot on high-definition video cameras, Che doesn't merely look wonderful; it also delivers on the long-promised but rarely delivered potential DV offers real artists. I cannot imagine a studio making the investment to shoot this script with the economic costs of film in play; I can only shudder to think of the demands for more explanatory monologues from the lead characters, or more time devoted to the rebel leader's loves, or any other possible dilution or alteration made in the name of reaching a broad, profitable audience. And Che doesn't look cheap; it looks great, and has the advantage of being less expensive -- which means it can be what Soderbergh wants it to be instead of having to contort itself through the hurdles and demands required to justify other people's money.
Del Toro may have been the only possible choice for the part, but even so it's impressive to note how much he brings to the role; a rueful humanity, real charisma, true excitement, flashes of humor. And while the supporting cast's efforts are hampered by the minimal screen time offered them, there are standout moments from the other actors as well. Demian Bechir gives us not only the manic messianic charm of Fidel Castro's early years but also the plush corruption that came his transformation from liberator to dictator. Early in the film, we see Castro planning a revolution in the jungle; later on, Castro dispenses mixology and recipe tips at a black-tie gala; Bechir brings both those extremes alive. And Lou Diamond Phillips has only a few scenes as the head of Bolivia's Communist Party, but they're impressive, conveying the helpless sympathy of a man whose hands are tied.
Che does not tell us everything about Guevara; it does not feel the need to hew to the left's vision of him as a martyr or the right's vision of him as a murderer. It's simple, plain-spoken, and wants you to make up your own mind: Here is a man; this is what he did; this is how he lived; this is how he died. Che is a piece of entertainment that delivers excitement, pathos and pure film making passion; it's a work of art worth thinking about and arguing about, one that opens up possibilities and encourages you to think and feel without telling you how you should think and feel. Bold, beautiful, bleak and brilliant, Che's not just the story of a revolutionary; in many ways, it's a revolution in and of itself.