Film review: Che: Part One
(15) Director: Steven Soderbergh Running time: 126 minutes **
STEPHEN Soderbergh's Che is no ordinary film. Part documentary, part feature, the Spanish-language film is a wonky biopic that teems with historical details about the guerrilla fighter's intense life, and yet obstinately refuses to hazard a guess at what was running through the mind beneath the beret.
Soderbergh and his star Benicio Del Toro spent more than a decade putting together the film, which is based largely on the diaries Guevara kept during his disastrous attempt to foment upheaval in Bolivia. But after its Cannes premiere, the four-and-a-half-hour feature has been chopped into two halves; part two is out in a few months, an arrangement as satisfying as half a dinner or half a pair of shoes. For now we have the Che (Part One): The Argentine, about the Cuban revolution where Guevara and Fidel Castro led a straggly gang of insurgents against the US-backed forces of dictator Fulgencio Batista, culminating in Batista's ousting in 1959. Del Toro's Guevara is a weak-lunged asthmatic, who builds his strength through physical tests.
Soderbergh has opted to simply allow events to unfold like a diary. This doesn't result in objective biography but it certainly contributes to a film whose unadorned story is exhaustive and exhausting, with a decidedly cavalier approach to dramatic urgency. You sense that a scene featuring a train derailing has Soderbergh groaning as it builds to something close to excitement, but it's a reminder that intelligent precision doesn't make its mark as effectively as a piece of flamboyant inspiration. Also, Soderbergh doesn't give us dates and locations; he merely opens his movie with a map showing locations of Che eventfulness, then expects us to remember that map when people mention them later in the movie. Maybe it's because I have the topographical skills of a mouse in a bucket, but I think there are geography tests less gruelling than this.
In an interesting but problematically academic epic, the film's ace is Del Toro, even though his energy levels are sometimes kept so low he resembles a drunken bear more than El Comandante. Che should be a vibrant personality, as culturally intricate as Lenin, Bob Dylan or Charlemagne, but Soderbergh keeps draining his man of emotional juice. This Che has idealism in spades but his revolutionary zeal comes across like a relentless version of an Xbox character, except instead of virtual gunplay, he keeps shelling you with speeches about the proletariat and how his pure brand of activism is "the highest level of humanity". This Che is like the persistent thick-skinned guy at university who kept trying to get you to join CommieSoc. He certainly doesn't have the puppyish eagerness displayed by Gael Garcia Bernal in the other recent Che biopic, The Motorcycle Diaries.
Del Toro is too personally charismatic to bore you, even in an enterprise as stubbornly academic as this, but if they give out Oscars for valiant tent-pole work, he should sweep the board.
• On general release from Friday
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