The two films that make up Che, an epic biopic directed by Steven Soderbergh and starring Benicio Del Toro, are inseparable yet not necessarily co-dependent. Due to the very nature of the expensive, expansive production that birthed them, it is unsurprising that they have been marketed as a single entity, yet exhibited and released individually. As pieces of cinema, they are two very different creatures, adapted from two distinct sources. They even have their own titles. Although they should still be watched together, they have been released as two DVDs. This review is of Che Part 1: The Argentine. Read the review of Che Part 2: Guerilla here.
Argentina-born revolutionary Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara has the strange distinction of being equally ubiquitous, mysterious and controversial. His standing as a Marxist icon has kept him dangerous and relevant to successive generations of disaffected youths and vanguard lefties alike, irrespective of his face selling more t-shirts and other assorted apparel than Jesus Christ and Manchester United combined. So, it is almost fitting that in making his two-part biopic, Soderbergh decided to keep Che (played by Benicio Del Toro) as a vessel – he is neither vindicated nor condemned, neither analysed nor explained. In this respect, both Che films are crucially different in intention, execution and feel from The Motorcycle Diaries, the 2004 film that dealt with Che’s youth, his long road trip around South America, and his political awakening – which at times seemed like a wet dream for humanities students.
Like The Motorcycle Diaries, The Argentine is based on one of Guevara’s many written works — specifically his book Reminiscences Of The Cuban Revolutionary War (Pasajes De La Guerra Revolucionaria), which is concerned with Guevara’s experiences with Fidel Castro and his 26th of July Movement, and the lead-up to their successful campaign against the Batista government, from their landing in Southern Cuba in 1956, to the decisive victory in Santa Clara in 1958.
The film’s plot interweaves scenes from the Revolutionary War with a flash-forward frame narrative, featuring Guevara traveling to New York in 1964 to be interviewed by the international press and address the United Nations – communicated with pithy script in sharp monochrome. This alternation between guerilla warfare and international politics gives the film an open sense of perspective, and gracefully stresses the interlocking processes of Che’s mythology. In New York, he is toasted at cocktail parties, hailed as ‘the brains behind the Cuban revolution’, and called into debates about socialism, armed revolution and the will of the people. In Cuba, he is an asthmatic commander, a doctor and an educator; he is as unfit for service as he is fiercely driven in his ideals – as inspiring as he is stubborn.
Benicio Del Toro is, unsurprisingly, the centre of the film, and delivers a career-best performance as Che. Without the crutches available to other actors in biopics, such as prosthetics, make-up or hammy vocal tics, Del Toro internalises his performance, relying on subtle body language and inflection to flesh out his character. Those looking for insight into the man’s motives will be disappointed with The Argentine, as Soderbergh and company shy away from explaining, advocating or demonising Che, and refuse to delve into his personal life. For instance, historical biopics often rely on emotional pay-offs, either in the form of romance, personal achievement, or tragic downfall; in The Argentine, Che meets his second wife, Aleida March, but the film is not at all interested in their relationship.
This makes the film a little unwelcoming, even heavy at times. Its slow pacing and cinéma vérité-like use of location shooting and natural lighting will not win over the popcorn flick audiences. Nevertheless, what The Argentine loses in sentimentalism, easy pay-offs and side-taking, it gains in communicating the drive of revolution.
Extras Let’s be clear about one thing: these films should be released together. They are not two films in a series, but two parts of an intricate whole, with subtleties and qualities highlighted by being viewed side by side. Optimum have released them separately, and as part of a ‘complete story’ boxset. The meagre extras are spread across the two discs, so come with the individual films – but add very little value.
The extras for Che Part 1: The Argentine are pitiful. The ‘Making of Che Featurette’ may sound like a promising proposition, but in reality it is one of those lazy, 10 minute deals which are assembled from various shallow interviews and padded out with promotional clips from the film. Appearing in the featurette are Soderbergh, Del Toro and Demián Bachir (Fidel Castro); frustratingly, both Del Toro and Soderbergh relate bite-sized anecdotes about the film’s production process – eight years of research, funding trouble, resistance from studios – which should have been fully explored in any self-respecting DVD extra.
Furthermore, the extra interview with Soderbergh is 10 minutes of mildly interesting chatter from a promotional tour. Once more, Soderbergh touches on issues that cry out for more discussion, such as the decision to shoot the film in Spanish, which caused the film’s American funding support to dwindle. Unfortunately, neither of these extras reflect the complexity of the feature itself.