Criterion Sunday 496: Che (2008)

The first time I saw Steven Soderbergh’s magnum opus, his enormous two-part biopic/investigation of Argentine doctor Ernesto “Che” Guevara’s revolutionary life, I think I must have been a bit underwhelmed. In retrospect it’s probably significantly to the film’s benefit that it avoids the preachiness of most Hollywood biopics, and certainly avoids some of the moralising traps of other Soderbergh films. It’s hardly a revolutionary picture itself, though, and feels overly interested in pastiching period news footage in the scenes from NYC in 1964, with grainy black-and-white, off-centre close-up framings, nervous handheld camerawork and on-screen captions that mimic exactly the font of those old burned-in subtitles you used to see in footage. In other words, you wonder at times if it was more about the technical challenge than capturing the man, and certainly contemporaneous accounts invested a lot in the digital technology Soderbergh was using. But yet at its heart I feel as if this is quite an earnest project. Guevara isn’t the hero of the kind you see on the famous poster images, but just a man amongst many others (and women, too, as we see in the guerrilla armies he forms and leads) trying to make a positive change to a country mired in corruption, no thanks to US involvement. Soderbergh is hardly interested in digging deep into the politics, but just by focusing on Guevara, Castro and the others there’s a gentle sense of solidarity with those holding these revolutionary ideals and the dream of a future forged in training camps in the jungles and skirmishes on the streets.

Moving on a few years for the second half of this epic, it’s clearly possible to see how it works in tandem with the first part. That film presented revolutionary ideology and practice with the stylistic flash of, say, the contemporary New Wave cinemas of the era, as Guevara worked alongside his fellows in Cuba in the late-1950s, intercut with interviews and speeches at the UN in 1964. This part takes a quite different tack, going for more of a handheld observational style, using a muted colour palette that really downplays the lushness of the highland setting, as Guevara faces up to the reality of the struggle in Bolivia in 1967. If the first was a film about glory, this is a film mostly about disappointment and failure. Its episodic march of time, numbered by the days Guevara has spent in country, sees his people slowly picked off, their deaths really just captured in passing or off-screen, as the action follows increasingly bearded men messing around in the hills, trying to win over the local people and with a mounting sense of desperation. There’s nothing glorious here, but there’s a certain fascination to Che’s resolve, even as he’s battered by asthma and poor discipline from the forces he’s trying to lead. Perhaps by design, but it feels almost underwhelming after the first part, a corrective perhaps but a sad one.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Che: Part One (2008)
Director Steven Soderbergh; Writers Peter Buchman and Benjamin A. van der Veen (based on the non-fiction work Pasajes de la guerra revolucionaria cubana [Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War] by Ernesto Guevara); Cinematography Steven Soderbergh [as “Peter Andrews”]; Starring Benicio del Toro, Demián Bichir, Rodrigo Santoro, Julia Ormond; Length 135 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Thursday 13 January 2022 (and earlier on DVD at home, London, sometimes in the early-2010s I imagine).

Che: Part Two (2008)
Director Steven Soderbergh; Writers Peter Buchman and Benjamin A. van der Veen; Cinematography Steven Soderbergh [as “Peter Andrews”]; Starring Benicio del Toro, Franka Potente, Gastón Pauls, Lou Diamond Phillips; Length 136 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Monday 17 January 2022 (and earlier on DVD at home, London, sometimes in the early-2010s I imagine).

De cierta manera (One Way or Another, 1977)

I’ve long wanted to watch this highly-regarded blend of documentary and drama by Sara Gómez, a Cuban filmmaker who died at the age of 31 in 1974 before it was completed (it was finished by her collaborators and released some years later), which has been particularly championed by the critic and feminist B. Ruby Rich. However, I got tired to waiting for a restoration (I don’t believe it’s had one, but I may be mistaken) or a cinematic screening so I took to YouTube, where one can find all kinds of marginalia and, so it seems, underseen classics.


Plenty of documentary films now take a self-aware and critical perspective on their own praxis, and it may not have been new in 1974 either when Sara Gomez shot this film, but what distinguishes De cierta manera is an energy undoubtedly harnessing Cuba’s own revolutionary project. Mixing voiceover-led ‘objective’ documentary elements, with vérité sequences shot on streets, but interleaving acted scenes, combining the actors (as fictional characters) with non-actors in unscripted sequences, as well as interpolating musical performance, this is a bold film. It’s about a slum area rebuilt by the government to improve the lives of the marginalised and impoverished communities of colour living there, and expands on this by its staging of a relationship between teacher Yolanda (Cuellar) and worker Mario (Balmaseda), who still clings to a certain machismo but is conscientious in his commitment to revolutionary work, unlike his colleague Humberto. Their story plays out in snippets against the backdrop of the community, its meetings and its daily life, as the film’s narrational strategies fold in class, race and sex as contested sites within the revolution. It’s a minor miracle of a film and it’s not best served by its own marginalisation to a poor 16mm dupe on YouTube. Hopefully someone does a proper restoration and release in future.

One Way or Another film posterCREDITS
Director Sara Gómez [sometimes also credited to Tomás González Pérez]; Writers Gómez, Julio García Espinosa and Tomás Gutiérrez Alea; Cinematographer Luis García; Starring Mario Balmaseda, Yolanda Cuellar; Length 78 minutes.
Seen at home (YouTube), London, Thursday 19 January 2017.