The Argentine (R) *** / Guerrilla (R) **½

 

Epic sweep, but lacking in context.

Che
Benicio del Toro and Catalina Sandino Moreno.
 

By Rene Rodriguez, The Miami Herald

Clocking in at almost 4 ½ hours, Steven Soderbergh's two-part epic Che -- comprised of The Argentine and Guerrilla -- is certainly the longest and most detailed feature film ever made about the iconic revolutionary Ernesto ''Che'' Guevara.

It is also the vaguest and most opaque, and therein lies its fascination. As a filmmaker, Soderbergh alternates between mainstream entertainments (Erin Brockovich, Traffic, the Ocean's Eleven trilogy) and more experimental, abstract pictures (Bubble, Solaris, Full Frontal). In Che, he uses a little of both approaches to make a movie that is as absorbing as it is frustrating.

Che is a highly pleasurable exercise in pure cinema -- the half-hour battle in Santa Clara, Cuba, that closes TheArgentine is a particularly well-choreographed and orchestrated piece of filmmaking -- but it's an exercise built around a historical figure whose more notorious and loathsome aspects go curiously unmentioned. Soderbergh may not have set out to intentionally rile his audience, but there is a level of prankishness to some of his artistic choices in Che that have that effect anyway. Why make a movie about Guevara's role in the Cuban Revolution that leaves out everything Guevara did -- and how swiftly he was corrupted by power -- after seizing victory?

The answer, whether you agree with it or not, is up on the screen. Neither The Argentine (which was shot in gorgeous widescreen and uses space and geography as carefully as a John Sturges picture) nor Guerrilla (which was filmed largely on handheld cameras and has a grittier, more urgent feel) burrows very far into Guevara's psyche. Nor do they sketch the arc of his life or provide much historic context to his accomplishments. Almost two hours pass before we discover Guevara was married and had a daughter while he was fighting in the Sierra Maestra mountains. As a portrait of a man's life, Che is about as deep as a close-up of a T-shirt.

What drew Soderbergh to this material -- what fascinated him to the point of fixation, extending the film's running time for a good hour longer than it needed to be -- was the minutiae of Guevara's experiences in the field. The screenplays, written by Peter Buchman and Benjamin A. van der Veen, require at least a cursory knowledge of Guevara's life in order to make much sense, since they consist primarily of the accumulation of detail and plodding incident found in the two Guevara diaries that inspired the movies (Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War and Bolivian Diary.)

Yes, The Argentine does show us the first meeting between Guevara (Benicio Del Toro, who plays Che with a combination of humble strength and righteous fury) and Fidel Castro (an uncanny Demian Bechir) in which ideologies are exchanged, and a bond is formed. But that's about all of the context we get. When Guevara travels to New York City in 1964 to deliver a speech at the United Nations building and is heckled by protesters who call him a murderer, the film has given you no way to know what they're talking about.

Guerrilla, which follows Guevara's failed attempt to do in Bolivia what he had pulled off in Cuba, is more linear and focused, although watching it immediately after The Argentine is close to exhausting, since so much of the movie consists of practically identical scenes: Guevara training his peasant army in the jungle, plotting his military strategy and wheezing from asthmatic attacks. Whereas The Argentine ends on a note of jubilant victory, Guerrilla is a downward spiral of tension. Everything that could go wrong does, climaxing with Guevara's death. But the movie feels slighter and less substantial than the first chapter, and there are stretches in it that tax your patience in ways Soderbergh probably didn't intend.

Che is not exclusively a piece of hagiography, the way others have claimed. Soderbergh subtly weaves in directorial comments (a jump cut from Guevara presiding over the execution of two army deserters to his receiving a standing ovation at the U.N. assembly, for example) that do not refute the man's darker side.

But they're much too subtle when compared to scenes in which a reporter asks Guevara what is the most important quality for a revolutionary to have, and he replies ''Love,'' without a trace of irony. Che is something of a landmark achievement -- watch the whole epic in one sitting, and you'll probably never forget it -- but it also smacks of a huge missed opportunity. It perpetuates the romantic myth, leaving the truth still out there.

THE ARGENTINE

Cast: Benicio Del Toro, Demian Bichir, Santiago Cabrera, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Victor Rasuk, Edgar Ramirez.

Director: Steven Soderbergh.

Screenwriter: Peter Buchman.

Producers: Laura Bickford, Benicio Del Toro.

GUERRILLA

Cast: Benicio Del Toro, Carlos Bardem, Jordi Molla, Franka Potente, Joaquim de Almeida, Eduard Fernandez, Julia Ormond, Lou Diamond Phillips, Gaston Pauls.

Director: Steven Soderbergh.

Screenwriters: Peter Buchman, Benjamin A. van der Veen.

Producers: Laura Bickford, Benicio Del Toro.

An IFC Films release. ''The Argentine'' running time: 129 minutes; ''Guerrilla'' running time: 128 minutes. In Spanish and English with English subtitles. Vulgar language, violence, gore. In Miami-Dade: Bill Cosford Cinema, Miami Beach Cinematheque; in Palm Beach: Lake Worth Playhouse.

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