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).

The 33 (aka Los 33, 2015)

It feels like there are two distinct films within this relatively big-budget Chilean/Colombian co-production, based on the real-life mining disaster at Copiapó in 2010 in which 33 miners were trapped underground. One is a film of excellent cinematography in underground chambers, of fine acting by the ensemble cast, depicting the lives of ordinary people in an extraordinary situation. It does a really good job, in particular, of capturing these men’s weary lined faces as they assess their chances, and of their families above ground (mostly wives and children) hoping and praying for their survival. That’s a good film.

And then there’s the film as it’s scripted, replete with disaster clichés, spoken in heavily-accented English, and — perhaps suggesting some of the commercial focus of the filmmakers — even setting up a triumphal US involvement towards the end (though thankfully backing off from giving too great a value to that). This is the film in which the engineer played by Gabriel Byrne (of all people; mostly the cast are Latino) points at a 3D rendering of the mine overlaid with a graphic of the Empire State Building (two of them in fact) to represent the size of the obstacle. This film is not nearly as successful. People shake their heads (Byrne again) and say “we need to face the TRUTH dammit” while others (the Minister of Mining, played by Rodrigo Santoro) say “No I believe en mi corazón that they’re still alive, and now let me go listen to a touching old woman’s song” (yes, I’m paraphrasing obviously, but not much).

On balance, I think the good film wins out in the end, but only just. It’s beautifully filmed, and the tension is solidly crafted — it would be all but unbearable if we didn’t know the real-life outcome. Perhaps on reflection, it’s the cast speaking in English I object to the most, but there’s still plenty to like, and Banderas is a dependable linchpin for the unfolding drama.

The 33 (aka Los 33, 2015)CREDITS
Director Patricia Riggen; Writers Mikko Alanne, Craig Borten and Michael Thomas (based on the book Deep Down Dark by Héctor Tobar); Cinematographer Checco Varese; Starring Antonio Banderas, Lou Diamond Phillips, Rodrigo Santoro, Juliette Binoche, Gabriel Byrne; Length 127 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld West India Quay, London, Tuesday 2 February 2016.