Che: Part 1: The Argentine [movies]

By: E · January 4, 2009

It’s a bit weird for me to review Che: Part One, being that it’s only half of Steven Soderbergh’s epic (both Part One and Part Two are being released simultaneously in the theaters). As such, it’s an unfinished story that really shouldn’t, but will be by many casual audience viewers, judged on its own merits. Soderbergh began working on this monstrous biopic shortly after Erin Brockovich was released in 2000, researching and rewriting the story multiple times, trying to give the Cuban revolutionary his just due while still keeping the story watchable enough to push to mainstream audiences. The first part focuses on Ernesto Che Guevara’s first meeting with Fidel Castro in Mexico City, then just an Argentinian doctor, and ends with the 26th of July Movement taking the city of Santa Clara and heading to Havana. All of this is intercut with Che’s trip to the United Nations in 1964, during which he spoke at length in interview sessions before giving his now famous address to the general assembly.

So, does this movie work? Does it make me want to see the second part? Well, yes, but with a caveat. No question that this movie is stunning in every conceivable way. Soderbergh shoots with such an effortlessly deft hand, you never feel like you’re watching a Hollywood production. The look of the film is entirely organic, all juxtaposed against the gritty black and white footage of Che in New York preparing to address the UN, resulting in this weird dissonance that makes you believe that though the “present” is 1964, the past is truly the time you are in now. Benicio Del Toro’s performance is excellent, displaying Che to be a soft spoken, fiercely passionate man who values loyalty and discipline over any kind of luxury or evil. This results in Che’s ostracization from the other Cubans, which he already felt to a certain degree being that he was a born Argentinian who came from Mexico. You actually feel a strong sense of sympathy and compassion for him, as he quietly reads by himself while the rest of the soldiers drink and laugh loudly around the fire in the jungles of Cuba. As a result, the film begins with a strong first hour that pulls you in to the point where you feel like you’re watching something incredibly historic.

That’s the good. Here’s the bad. The movie doesn’t ramp up…at all. Which is fine, seeing as this is really only the first half of a 4 hour long epic. But it makes for an exhausting experience, watching the same slow, deliberate, and meticulous scenes of preparation and walking through the jungle. You expect something more to happen, and it never comes until they get to Santa Clara. Viscerally, you’re so excited to see something happen, but to Soderbergh’s credit and fault, he shows the battle of Santa Clara with such realistic precision that it fails to be exciting at all. It’s workmanlike, showing the slow advances of the soldiers…it’s just plain boring. As the movie ends, a part of you is sure the rest of the movie will become extraordinary, and a part of you is worried that perhaps the movie will continue to be like this for another two hours. You’re left completely ambivalent on whether Soderbergh has completely sold you on trying out the second half.

In discussions I’ve had with Y, we’re both pretty sure that this movie will bomb at the box office. Sure, it’ll garner attention and get some decent numbers, but the fact that moviegoers will have to commit 2 trips to the theater (most notably, have to BUY two tickets to the movie) to finish this saga will simply turn people off. We both wish this movie was shown as one feature, with an intermission as Soderbergh was rumored to want in the first place. Instead, watching Part One without being able to see Part Two immediately after creates a weird feeling of both regret and relief. Regret that you can’t finish it immediately, but relief that you can give yourself a break from the sprawling, focused, and meticulous job that Soderbergh and Del Toro pour into this movie. It is a feat to behold, and worth your attention. But, as life often goes, I’m scared that too many other things may get in the way before I get around to seeing the second movie. And by the time I actually DO see it, perhaps all its potential effect would’ve been lost.

But I suppose we’ll have to hold out for Part Two to really judge this movie.

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