Amanda Mae Meyncke January 15, 2010
Whether you believe him to be a cruel warmonger or a dreaming idealist, Che Guevara is a tremendously polarizing figure. Che as a film is not supposed to either exalt or defame Che Guevara the man. In Steven Soderbergh‘s 2008 film, Che is presented as simply and factually as the screenwriters could manage. Benicio Del Toro‘s interpretation of Che is one of quiet, consolidated power, a military man with a medical background who has come to do one thing: overthrow the government. In his interactions with peasants he is kind and generous, but when it comes to his men he is disciplined and demanding, as there is little room for error. For anyone who feels a desire to learn more about Che Guevara apart from the mystique that surrounds him, Steven Soderbergh has built this film tirelessly from the ground up, and the Criterion Blu-ray release is a joy to behold.
Clocking in at a massive 271 minutes total, the films themselves are very different, though enjoyable as a single viewing experience as well. Che Part One deals entirely with Guevara and Castro’s attack on the Batista regime in Cuba, the difficulties encountered while raising a guerrilla army, Che’s trip to the United Nations, and the eventual triumph in Havana. There is a great deal of insight into the training of the guerrilla army as well as Che’s insistence on educating the men. The mood here is serious but fascinating to watch, more so than I had anticipated. Che Part Two is very different, much darker in tone, and is entirely concerned with Guevara’s failed Bolivian campaign and his eventual execution. Che attempts to bring the revolution to South America, and fails through lack of communication, lack of fighters, and a lack of support throughout the country. This film is much quieter in tone, thoughtful and meditative. On the barest of side notes, Matt Damon has a one-minute cameo that is over before you can properly ascertain whether or not it was actually Matt Damon, but yes, it was. Soderbergh, acting as cinematographer but utilizing the pseudonym of Peter Andrews, intentionally shot the two films with some major differences. Part One, at 135 minutes, has a more traditional “cinematic” wide-screen framing as well as brighter colors, more triumphant and hopeful. Part Two, at 136 minutes, takes place during the failed Bolivian operation, and is shot with a darker color palette as well as a more full-screen framing technique.
The Blu-ray release is beautifully done, as only Criterion can. The packaging is trim and sleek, with each disc containing excellent supplemental materials such as an extensive audio commentary by Jon Lee Anderson, the man who provided much of the heavily researched source material in his book Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life; deleted scenes; a trailer; interviews with various historians and people who were with Che in his campaigns; and a documentary made directly after Che’s death in 1967. An art form unto itself, the Criterion essay is a heady blend of information bringing together production details with historical notes and cultural significance. Che is no exception to this rule, and the included essay by Amy Taubin is an excellent addition to the existing canon of inquisitive, thoughtful works.
Most feature films are still shot on actual 35mm film stock, but Soderbergh had a different vision for the lengthy film, one that would require more agility and speed since they would be shooting in such remote areas, and with an accelerated shooting schedule of 39 days per film. Che was the first major film to be shot on the brand-new Red camera, and in fact the camera had not gone into major production at the time of shooting. Soderbergh shot the film using a prototype and worked through many of the issues on set. The Red camera body weighs about nine pounds and with lenses and additions weighs about twenty. The vision for Che was to put the viewer on the ground level with the guerrillas, offering a fast-paced look at the military campaigns, and the lightweight Red camera allowed this to happen. For all interested parties there is a remarkably interesting video segment on the second disc that goes in depth on the history of the Red, exploring what makes it so revolutionary to the process of feature film making. The segment Che and the Digital Camera Revolution! meticulously documents the advances in technology that allowed Soderbergh to shoot footage one day and begin to edit it the very next day, a streamlined system that was unheard of only a few years ago. The crystalline images of the Red combined with the perfectly rendered Blu-ray materials makes for a gorgeous viewing experience.
Making Che documents what a huge undertaking the film was, spanning at least eight years of pre-production and production, how it changed from a single English-language film to two separate Spanish-language films. Director Steven Soderbergh, producer Laura Bickford, actor Benicio Del Toro, and writers Peter Buchman and Benjamin van der Veen explain the process that lead Che from initial concept to final distribution. In one dark moment at the end of the documentary, Soderbergh admits that he can’t quite say that making Che was worth the time, the energy, and the money poured into it. (Che had a difficult time finding a distributor, and at the time of this article has grossed less than two million dollars.) He further states that the entire process required him to think about whether films mattered any longer, and he came to the conclusion that they simply don’t, at least not the way they used to. Soderbergh’s next two films, The Girlfriend Experience and The Informant! feel the weight of this brokenhearted declaration, but he’s ultimately wrong. Che does matter, not only as an important marker in the advancement of cinematic technology, but also as an example of what happens when people stick to their guns and make the movie they set out to make against all odds. Cheer up, Soderbergh — It’s a beautiful piece of film work, and a startling look at one of the most lauded and hated men of the past century.
Che is available from Criterion on Blu-ray beginning January 19, 2010.
Categories: DVDTags: Che, Criterion collection, Steven soderbergh