Che Part 1 Directed by: Steven Soderbergh Cast: Benicio Del Toro, Demián Bichir, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Julia Ormond Running Time: 2 hr 10 min Rating: unrated
Plot: Ernesto "Che" Guevara (Benicio Del Toro) befriends Fidel Castro (Demián Bichir) and follows him to Cuba to fight as revolutionaries against the government. The story of the revolution is told within a framework of flashforwards to 1964 when Che goes to New York to speak to the UN as a delegate from Cuba.
Who's It For? Fans of Steven Soderbergh, Marxist revolutionaries and anyone who has ever worn a Che Guevara t-shirt. Don't let the presence of Benicio Del Toro fool you: the film is almost entirely in Spanish and subtitled. Even Del Toro speaks Spanish, occasionally speaking dialogue while someone else translates over his own voice. It's a little weird, but indicative of the cinema veríte style Soderbergh seems to be going for.
Expectations: Che was originally considered an Oscar contender--that is, until it premiered at Cannes to a lukewarm response. That said, I like Steven Soderbergh a lot and I was excited to see a film about Che. I felt like there was a lot of material out there and this film could be great.
Actors: Benicio Del Toro as Ernesto "Che" Guevara: I wouldn't have thought of Del Toro for the role of Che, though when you see him with the beard, it seems a natural fit. Sometimes full of bonhomie, at other times burning with idealism, he dresses down rebels who go against the ideals of the revolution. Over the course of the film, he goes from academic, idealist, and follower to a battle hardened leader. And I believed it because the changes seem hard won. However, despite the character growth, I longed to know more about the man. Only when Catalina Sandino Moreno's Aleida March shows up do we get a glimpse of Che as a human being. Soderbergh shoots almost everything in long shots, leaving limited opportunities to see Del Toro's face. When it is visible, he's often shrouded by the brim of his cap and his beard. This should have been more frustrating, but Del Toro does great things with the role. I found myself alternately respecting him and questioning his single-mindedness. Still, I would have appreciated a chance to experience his acting from a more intimate angle. Score: 9
Demián Bichir as Fidel Castro: No character in Part 1 has nearly as much screen time as Che. Still, I would pick Bichir's Castro as the most important secondary character, if only because he is so central to Che's choices. Bichir was fine as Castro, but he's primarily identified by the cigars that always hang from his mouth. Score: 7
Catalina Sandino Moreno as Aleida March: She doesn't arrive until the film is two-thirds over, but Moreno's March becomes the first character to bring out Che's humanity. Why isn't she a movie star yet? She's one of those actresses who draws your attention no matter how many other people are in the frame, and despite the weird, unflattering wig she's wearing. Score: 8
Talking: Though spoken in Spanish, the subtitles are clear and easy to read, so that isn't a problem. Sometimes, characters will start talking about specific battles or parts of Cuba and that can get a little confusing. If you don't know the specifics of the Cuban Revolution, I suggest not worrying about it. Otherwise, the screenwriter found a good balance between saying enough and not cluttering the story with clunky exposition. Score: 7
Sights: The number one reason to see Che is because it's gorgeous to look at--not the black and white graininess of the 1964 scenes, but the brilliant tropical colors of the Cuban forest as Che and his revolutionaries make their way from the south end of the island to Havana. Between the lighting and the greenery, this is practically an ad for the Cuban tourism board, albeit shot mainly handheld. The camerawork makes this feel like a documentary, as though the camera is embedded in the forrest with the revolutionaries. My only complaint is that we never get up close. If this were a documentary, I would want to see the sweat on the brow of the guerrillas. As a narrative film, there really is no excuse for why this isn't done. Score: 7
Sounds: I definitely hearted the score. I don't know if it was meant to be tongue in cheek or not, but some of the music, especially when it's a really tense moment right before a fight, was totally reminiscent of 60's films, like Charade or To Catch a Thief . It was wonderfully effective. Score: 7
Best Scene: The moment when Che presides over the execution of two of his former men. They have raped and pillaged in the name of the revolution, and in this moment, it becomes absolutely clear who Che is. He will kill a comrade before he compromises his ideals.
Ending: The film ends with the conclusion of the Cuban revolution. This feels like a natural stopping place since the film has dealt almost exclusively with Che's time in Cuba. There's a setting sun, beautiful skies, it's very peaceful and hopeful. The whole set up screams "and they all lived happily ever after."
Questions: Despite the fact that Guevara wrote extensively on his philosophy and life, why do I feel that the character of Che is always at arms length? Why doesn't Soderbergh spend more time showing the faces of these men and women up close?
Rewatchability: I could watch this film again for the action sequences, but it is subtitled so it's not one to put on when you're only half paying attention.
Che Part 1 is not the story of Che Guevara the man so much as the part he played in the Cuban Revolutionary War. It's about the excitement and monotony of army life and how a movement excited a nation, and the man who became the figurehead of this movement. But it's not a charcter piece, unless the "character" is the political movement. When I see a movie, more than anything else, I want to be entertained and Che did the job. Soderbergh puts together a really pretty package and one that is worth seeing.
Final Score: 7/10