Judge Dan Mancini lost his enthusiasm for the Revolution when Sheila E came along.
"¡Patria o muerte!"—Che Guevara
Director Steven Soderbergh may have declared himself an agnostic on the subject of Che Guevara, but making an agnostic movie (or two) about the divisive Marxist revolutionary is probably impossible. Try as he did, Soderbergh didn't quite pull it off. Che Parts One and Two are neither hagiography nor portrait of a monster, but in struggling to maintain their own neutrality they probably fall closer to the former than the latter. And that's guaranteed to piss someone off. Of course, tilting in the opposite direction would only have earned Soderbergh a different set of detractors.
The built-in controversy of its subject matter makes Che an ideal candidate for a Criterion Collection release that examines the films as art, history, and political statement. And that's just what we have in this fine three-disc set.
Facts of the Case
Che: Part One is a mildly fractured narrative with two chronological timelines running in parallel to one another. The movie begins with Che Guevara's (Benicio Del Toro, The Usual Suspects) December 16, 1964 interview by investigative journalist and Fidel Castro superfan Lisa Howard (Julia Ormond, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), and then cuts to Guevara's introduction to Castro (Demián Bichir, Weeds) in Mexico City in 1955 and the exiles' covert return to Cuba on the Granma. From there, the movie jumps back and forth between Guevara's 1964 firebrand speech at the United Nations, and his leadership in the guerilla war during the Cuban revolution, culminating in the overthrow of General Fulgencio Batista's government at the Battle of Santa Clara in December of 1958, a clash in which Guevara led the revolutionary forces into combat. Through the epic journey, we watch as the idealistic young Argentinean physician Ernesto Guevara transforms himself into hardened Marxist revolutionary Che.
Che: Part Two elides Guevara's bloody tenure as commander of La Cabaña Fortress prison after the fall of Batista's government, his shaping of the Agrarian Reform Law, failed policies as Cuba's Finance Minister, involvement in the Bay of Pigs and Cuban Missile Crisis, and failed revolutionary campaign in the Congo, opting instead to jump straight to his departure for Bolivia in late 1966. Leaving his wife Aleida March (Catalina Sandino Moreno, who also appears in Part One) and five children, Guevara and a small team of revolutionaries arrive in Bolivia intending to overthrow President René Barrientos' government and remake the country in Cuba's image. But once in the jungles of Bolivia, Che is challenged by a local population distrustful of foreigners, a well-heeled communist party chief (Lou Diamond Phillips, La Bamba) who favors the Soviet approach of slow infiltration of the seats of power to the Chinese communist approach of armed conflict preferred by Guevara, and a team of American CIA agents intent on limiting Cuba's influence in South America by any means necessary. Without Castro's political acumen, the rigidly idealistic Guevara finds it impossible to build a coalition of revolutionaries and remain hidden from the wily and determined enemies who doggedly close in on him.
In working so diligently to take a neutral, even-handed stance on the politically controversial life of Guevara, Soderbergh crafts a sprawling, pretty-to-look-at epic that is so emotionally detached and so eager to skip over the most obviously dramatic moments of Guevara's life that it feels more like a biography of Alberto Korda's iconic photograph of Che (gracing the T-shirts and dorm room walls of bourgeois college students/would-be revolutionaries all over the Western world) than the actual man. Of the two films, Part One is the weaker. Guevara haters (of which I kind of count myself, to be honest) have griped endlessly about the absence of the revolutionary's murderous behavior at La Cabaña in either of the films. It's an empty complaint, since that period of Guevara's life is one of the many that the two movies don't touch upon due to Soderbergh's choice to handle the symmetrical bookends of Cuba and Bolivia. It's what Soderbergh leaves out of his tale of the Cuban Revolution that undermines the film. Part One ignores formative events in Che's life, like the ambush of Castro's men by Batista's army upon the Granma's arrival in Cuba and the gunshot wound suffered by Guevara shortly thereafter, for no apparent reason other than that including them might make the movie feel like a more conventional, less art-housey biographical film. While Soderbergh hammers home the idea that Castro's political pragmatism was essential in mediating Guevara's ideological extremism, his elliptical narrative doesn't quite succeed in relaying Guevara's strategic and tactical military smarts and his almost foolhardy bravery in combat, both of which proved essential components of the revolution's success. A broad survey of Guevara's revolutionary life (broader than what these two films can offer) shows that, absent Castro, he was basically a failure. But absent Guevara, it's unlikely Fidel's revolution would have found the resolve to defeat Batista's army.
Che: Part Two offers a significant improvement over the previous film. Focused as it is on Guevara's decline and demise, it unfurls with the stately grandeur of an epic tragedy. From the beginning, Guevara is haggard, harried, poorly supplied, and constantly fighting hunger and sickness. The script for Part Two was the first to be written. Soderbergh only expanded the project into two films when he felt that a stand-alone story of Che's time in Bolivia wouldn't provide the viewer sufficient context for his indefatigable dedication to revolution even in the face of certain death. It's too bad, then, that Part Two suffers a bit from the deficiencies of Part One. Because the first film doesn't quite communicate Guevara's military value to the revolution and we never see his cushy life as a post-revolution Cuban government bigwig, there's little sense going into Part Two of exactly what Che sacrificed personally in his attempt to foment revolt in Bolivia (the closest we get is a sequence in which Che tenderly lays his head in Aleida's lap, and a shot or two of him looking wistfully at his brood of children). Still, Che: Part Two is a fine study in entropy and the honor and courage required to remain dedicated to a lost cause, even to the very end. Like Part One, it's a beautiful looking picture that can be a highly satisfying dramatic ride provided you know enough about Guevara's life to fill in its many historical and narrative gaps.
I don't want my criticisms to leave you with the false impression that Che: Part One and Che: Part Two are bad films. In fact, they are very good films—beautifully shot, structurally fascinating, intelligent, and well acted (Benicio Del Toro deserves all of the praise he has received). Soderbergh's Che duology is a hair's breadth from being a masterpiece—so close, yet so far away: When a pair of movies is this good, its deficiencies stand out all the more. Soderbergh's was a noble effort that doesn't quite deliver on its promise. To the extent that Che is a failure, it's a fascinating failure worthy of at least four hours of your time.
Both films were shot with the Red One Digital Cinema camera at 4K resolution, for the most part (isolated portions of each were also shot on 16 mm and Super 16 mm). Part Two was shot first with spherical lenses, resulting in a 1.78:1 image that is startling in its bold but accurate colors and fine detail. As with most digitally shot movies, the foreground, middleground, and background are often all in focus and razor sharp in detail. All post-production was work was done digitally, as was the transfer of the movie to DVD. The result is an image that, while not as impressive as the Blu-ray, I'm sure, is as near to perfect as you can get. Part One was shot with a slightly improved Red One camera (the folks at Red worked closely with Soderbergh during the shoot) with anamorphic lenses, rendering a 2.39:1 image that looks more like celluloid because of the slightly limited depth of focus caused by the lens. It's still basically a perfect image.
Audio is presented in a Dolby 5.1 surround track in Spanish with optional English subtitles. The track is pristine. Dialogue and subtle audio effects are never lost in the mix, and battle scenes deliver plenty of thump.
Augmenting the features on Discs One and Two is an audio commentary by Jon Lee Anderson, author of Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life. It's among the best tracks I've ever heard. Anderson is deeply critical of Part One, and does an exemplary job of providing background and filling in the blanks in Part Two. One could argue that he mostly complains that the movies aren't structurally identical to his definitive biography of Guevara (and why should they be?), but I found his observations to be spot-on.
Disc Three of the set contains a collection of documentaries and deleted scenes.
There are two groups of deleted scenes, one for each of the movies. Part One contains 10 scenes that run a total of 15 minutes. Part Two contains four scenes that run 5 minutes. None of the scenes is particularly revelatory or would have changed the thrust of either of the films had they been included in the final cuts.
Making Che (49:52)
End of a Revolution (25:53)
Interviews from Cuba (35:02)
Che and the Digital Revolution (33:21)
The three-disc set also comes with a 22-page insert booklet that includes details about the video and audio transfers, as well as "Why Che?," an in-depth essay by film critic Amy Taubin.
Steven Soderbergh's Che is a flawed but eminently fascinating duology—one part unconventional biopic, one part throwback to the Hollywood road show epics of yesteryear. Criterion's three-disc set delivers the movies in high style. The transfers are gorgeous, the supplements are plentiful and substantive, and the packaging is as iconographic as one would expect.
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Scales of Justice, Che: Part Two
Perp Profile, Che: Part Two
Distinguishing Marks, Che: Part Two
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