The one overwhelming message coming from the competition films at the 61st Cannes Film Festival is: shit’s messed up. “Waltz With Bashir” digs into the never-fully-healed wounds of war. In Matteo Garrone‘s “Gomorra,” organized crime isn’t an aberration; it’s just the shadow army of an irredeemably venal free-market system. The Dardenne Brothers‘ “The Silence of Lorna” expresses a horror at a not-too-underground economy in the trade of human lives. Lucia Martel‘s “Un Mujer Sin Cabeza” takes a still, near-surreal look at class (un)consciousness, and doesn’t like what it sees. Even the period melodrama here, Clint Eastwood‘s fact-based “The Changeling,” fairly bristles with anger at corrupt authoritarianism. And even the not-overtly socially conscious family saga here, Arnaud Desplechin‘s “A Christmas Tale” (Un Conte de Noel) emphasizes fissure and disruption over harmony and affinity.
Into this cinematic atmosphere came Steven Soderbergh‘s almost maniacally anticipated two-part Che Guevara film, “Che“; the to-be-bifurcated “Guerilla” and “The Argentine” made their respective debuts in one marathon screening, punctuated by a leisurely intermission during which critics were (hopefully) placated, stomach-and-palate-wise, with a bag lunch containing sandwich, large water container, and a mini-serving of Kit-Kat. After the constant variations on how the system isn’t working, an overthrow of the system seemed. Thematically speaking, a tonic idea. And for better or worse (and my opinion is that it’s for worse), in terms of pop iconography, nothing says “overthrowing the system” better than the iconic image of Che.
Good thing then, as far as my opinion is concerned, that Soderbergh doesn’t have a rabble-rousing bone in his body. “Che” benefits greatly from certain Soderberghian qualities that don’t always serve his other films well, e.g., detachment, formalism, and intellectual curiosity. The two parts of “Che” treat two discrete periods in Ernesto Guevara’s life: his participation in the Cuban revolution of 1957-59, wherein he was Fidel Castro’s second in overthrowing the tyrannical Batista regime is depicted in “Guerilla”; his dreadfully abortive attempt to spread Latin-American revolution in Bolivia from 1966 to 1967 in the subject of “The Argentine.” This structure very conveniently elides the period wherein Che, as effective co-head of Castro’s Cuban government, presided over mass executions, the persecution of homosexuals, the ruination of the island’s economy, the ill-fated alliance with the Soviet Union, and so on.
Despite the strategic reasons a filmmaker might have to leave all that stuff out, what Soderbergh (working from a script by uncredited “Alexander” scribe Peter Buchman) gives us here is not exactly a hagiography, even as it acknowledges the fact that 99.9 percent of the time covered in these movies, Che was the coolest guy in the room. How could it not–in revolutionary politics as well as every other kind, charisma counts. And Benicio del Toro, despite being ten real years older than anybody playing the part in any period should be (and in fairness to him, let’s note that this has been a very LONG gestating process; the original plan had Terence Malick directing with Soderbergh producing, and that was many years ago), works almost demonically at making Che’s appeal palpable. But his performance is just a remarkable cog in Soderbergh’s meticulous examination of process. Both parts of the film are largely about revolution as a job of work.
In 1957, Fidel’s boat takes off from Mexico to Cuba with some 80-odd fighters on board; in one of Che’s many unforgettable images we see Guevara, lost in thought, peeling a fruit, as the spray of the sea splashes in his face and he regards the other men laughing, socializing all around him. He is always alone in his own vision, and Soderbergh conveys this without resorting to literal psychologizing. The whole of “Guerilla,” which starts off leap-frogging between a 1954 dinner at which Argentinean Che agrees to join Castro in an effort to liberate Cuba, a 1964 visit to the United States in which Che addresses the U.N. and spars with a female television interviewer, and the 1957 – 59 campaigns Che led in Cuba, is about how to make a successful revolution; everything culminates in Che’s triumphant taking of the Cuban city of Santa Clara, a bravura sequence in which Che’s men derail a train full of Batista’s troops while breaking residences’ walls in order to get to the town’s church, the highest building in the town, in order to set up a sniper’s nest that they turn out not to need. It’s a breathtaking instance of sustained filmmaking, and the train derailing is, yes, the most cinematically impressive since the one in Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia.”
Things fall apart in the second half, “The Argentine,” in which an incognito Che–first calling himself “Ramon” and then “Fernando” (and damn, up until last night I had forgotten that the ABBA song of the latter name was in fact inspired by Guevara)– attempts to export Cuba’s brand of revolution to Bolivia. His rebuff from the head of that country’s Communist Party (convincingly incarnated by, of all people, Lou Diamond Phillips) is only the first of many stumbling blocks he encounters, and this part, despite being the more overtly Malick-like of the two (Soderbergh often lets the colors of green, white, and gray do the talking for him, as befits the deciduous forests that contrast significantly from the lush tropical foliage of his Cuba–he also widens the aspect ratio) also offers even more detail about how, in a guerilla war, battles are engaged, fought, and end. A sequence in which an asthma-plagued Che beats his faltering horse is an apt, powerful, perfectly played metaphor. And there’s a “The Birds”-evoking shot depicting the Bolivian army’s growing strength against the (as it turns out) not-too-popular revolutionaries that ought to make it into the pantheon of takes once this film is more widely disseminated. And disseminated it will be; critics of my acquaintance were arguing its merits and faults on the side streets of Cannes even as I dragged myself off to my residence here to write this up.
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