Che – Part One (France/Spain/US 2008)

Benicio del Toro as Che and Santiago Cabrera as Camilo Cienfeugos

Benicio del Toro as Che and Santiago Cabrera as Camilo Cienfeugos


I wasn’t sure what to expect from Che – Part 1 (aka The Argentine). I went overboard a few years ago over Soderbergh at the time of Erin Brockovich and Out of Sight. Then I decided he’d blown it and ignored most of the stuff after Oceans 11 which seemed so ordinary. But there was no way I wanted to miss this. The story of how 82 men aboard the Granma landed in Cuba and fashioned first a military victory and then a revolution is one of the great stories of the 20th century. 

What Soderbergh and Benicio del Toro (who seems to have been the instigator of the project) have achieved is quite remarkable. It hasn’t pleased everyone (with critics from both left and right) and many audiences seemed to have been confused by both the overall approach and the narrative structure which moves between three time periods in this first part of which was originally a 4 hour plus single film. I’ll have to wait until I’ve seen Part Two next month before I can comment on the whole thing, but I was certainly hooked by this half.

The first sequence in chronological terms offers the initial meeting between Che and Fidel Castro in Mexico City in 1955. There is a brief mention of the trip in the Granma, but most of the film covers the period from 1957 until January 1959 in which the 26 July Movement headed by Castro gradually moved towards Havana and the overthrow of Batista. Cut into this is black and white footage of a ‘flashforward’ to 1964 when Che visited New York to speak at the UN. (There is also a brief flashback to Mexico City.)

The confusion arises for two reasons. First, Soderbergh doesn’t give all the information necessary to understand everything that we see (though there is a lot of material that is presented) and second, that he doesn’t offer the familiar tropes of the biopic – or the war combat action picture. He deliberately keeps his distance from Che, keeping him framed much of the time in wide shots and as part of the group. We don’t learn about his back story or about his inner thoughts – we have to come to understand him through what he says and does in his role as comandante. Personally, this didn’t bother me. I knew some of the details of the story anyway, having spent an interesting afternoon in the Museum of the Revolution in Havana. Perhaps more importantly I really like the style, which for me was Rossellini and possibly a little of Pontecorvo. Thinking about it now a few hours later, the Roberto Rossellini film that might be in the back of my mind is Viva l’Italia! (Italy/France 1961). I have seen it just the once thirty years ago but it made an impression. Like Che, it is essentially about a revolutionary leader, Garibaldi, leading his men to victory and liberation. The Rossellini method is about representing history using realist aesthetics. It’s interesting too that Rossellini developed his own camera focusing device to enable him to shoot more easily in long takes. Soderbergh on Che is supposed to have used the RED digital camera, shooting the film himself under his pseudonym ‘Peter Andrews’. (The film’s credits also mention an Aaton Super 16 camera, so I’m not absolutely sure which technology was used for which scenes.) The ‘problem’ for audiences used to mainly mainstream cinema is that this approach doesn’t favour a close identification with individual characters. Without this emotional attachment and faced with two hours plus of subtitled (but very clearly articulated) Spanish, it might be a struggle. Having said that, Benicio del Toro is in nearly every scene – but we rarely see him with his guard down. Mostly, he is teaching his compadres (and us) what we need to do to succeed in the campaign. Which is fine by me.

Perhaps I’m too easily pleased. In Sight & Sound, January 2009, Michael Chanan, the leading British writer on Cuban Cinema, tears into the film in a short piece titled ‘Rebel Without a Point’, referring to a “lacklustre script”, “odd omissions and a flat pace”. He suggests that the script “has as much depth as a Cuban primary school textbook and is rather less exciting” and wonders why Soderbergh bothered in the first place. It’s tempting to turn the tables on Chanan and ask what he really wants to do in his article. He goes on to say that the film makes no historical gaffes, that there are incidental pleasures and that the translation of Peter Buchman’s script into demotic Cuban speech is pretty good. The problem is surely that for Cuban film and history experts like Michael Chanan, there is no way that Soderbergh could have adequately ‘covered’ the military campaign and the political dealings necessary to bring the anti-Batista forces together in five hours, never mind two. I’ll grant that the film is not as ‘exciting’ as it could be and that it could certainly take more passion. But, I quite like its fairly low key, distanced stance. I really enjoyed all the talk of the need for education and discipline. From what I’ve seen of Cuban education materials, they are pretty good, so if audiences get only a primary school introduction to the road revolution, I think that will be an achievement. And as Chanan concludes, the film might just help to prod a new US President into thinking about the “irrational economic blockade” of Cuba that has lasted for almost 50 years.

I’ll certainly go and see Part Two, although I’m not really looking forward to Che’s demise. Like many others, I’d like Part Two to focus on Che’s problems in Cuba post the revolution and I’d be intrigued to see something about the Congo expedition. More please! 

If you want to see how the film’s characters are represented in comparison with the official photographs of the time, you can browse a large collection of images on the website of Ediciones Aurelia (and buy postcards and posters).

Fidel in the mountains, an Alberto Korda image from Ediciones Aurelia.

Fidel in the mountains, an Alberto Korda image from Ediciones Aurelia.

One response to “Che – Part One (France/Spain/US 2008)

  1. Note, I wrote this before I read venicelion’s piece, however, most of what I wanted to say still seems relevant:

    The first thing to write is a recommendation to go and see this film – at the cinema. It is screened in Panavision, [i.e. 2.35:1] and in both colour and black and white. I saw it in a high definition print, and visually the 35mm, digital and 16mm cinematography stands up well. As a biopic it is both absorbing and entertaining. As a representation of the Cuban revolution it is pretty good, and miles ahead of previous mainstream commercial presentations. I would especially recommend it to Barack Obama and his incoming adminstration.
    It is a flawed film, no surprise given its Hollywood pedigree. Technically it is an independent US/European co-production, but there can be no doubt that the key players bring at least some of their tinsel-town values with them. The Production Company, Wild Bunch is European but has major US deals including with the investment vehicle, Virtual Studios. Even so, it is still has a political strand missing from many other biopics of revolutionaries: where in Cry Freedom [1987] Steve Biko was depoliticised, here Guevara is given a real sense of being part of a political movement. And whilst the parts of Malcom X [1992] were greater than the whole, this film emerges as an overall positive engagement with the iconic figure.

    One serious weakness is the plot of the film. I would think that without some knowledge of Guevara and the Cuban revolution audiences will emerged at least a little confused. Michael Chanan has an excellent article in Sight & Sound (January 2009) on this aspect. He makes a number of good points: the film would benefit from dealing with the revolutionaries’ use of the media and with popular resistance to the dictatorship aside from the insurgency. A point he spends less space on that would improve the film is more depth to the Cuba – USA relationship, in particular the neo-colonial relationship prior to the revolution. I think some comments, like his point that the relationship with the Communist Party at this time needs greater clarity, is a detail too far. The film does not attempt to be analytical; it is really agitational.
    Chanan was unimpressed with the use of alternating black and white and colour cinematography. He was likewise unimpressed with the ‘set of flashes forward’ in the film. Here I take issue with him. The first hour plus of the film tracks back and forth between depictions of the Cuban insurrection presented chronologically and in colour: and black and white flash-forwards to 1964, when Guevara made his famous speech at the United Nations. This latter material includes extracts from the speech, interviews with the US media at the time, and moments of Guevara relaxing or socialising in New York. Whilst we do not get an extended sequence, which would enable the sort of analysis that is missing, the progressive political and social stance of Guevara and the movement is clear.

    This technique is effectively montage in the sense of the Soviet theorists; the strategy disrupts the normal conventions and continuities of film narrative to draw attention to ideas rather than actions. It is also Brechtian in the sense that the disruption of time and space places audiences in a position to critically distance themselves. This is re-inforced by a tendency to avoid the conventional close-ups early in the film. A number of techniques in Che [including the use of montage] reminded me of films like Memories of Underdevelopment, directed for ICAIC by Tomas Gutiérrez Alea in 1968. That film, though, successfully used montage and an approach reminiscence of Brecht to offer an analytical stance on Cuba and the revolution. One factor that makes Che worth seeing is the absence of these Cuban films from British screens. Alea’s film, and other major works like Lucia [1969], appeared for a brief tour three years ago, and are now once again difficult to see or unavailable. The censorship of the market!

    I thought the use of unconventional techniques made Che especially effective in its first part. However, towards the end of the film we arrive at the key battle over the town of Santa Clara. Here the film switches tack and comes to resemble a much more conventional movie. This is an extended sequence, with no disruptions, as Guevara leads the Cuban forces against a key stronghold of the Dictatorship. The conventionality is reinforced, as Benicio del Toro’s portrayal of Che becomes more stereotypical. This is true of his costume and dress and of his manner and the accompanying staging. Added to this there is [for me] an unnecessary suggestion of romance with the character of Aleida [Catalino Sandino Moreno]. This change dissipates much of the political charge earlier in the film. It seems like an odd failure of nerve, perhaps the input of some of the production people. It might also be that Soderberg and his team thought that after over an hour of montage and Brechtian form audiences would carry over responses into a more conventional action sequence. In that case I think they are mistaken.
    It reminded me a similar change in Oliver Stone’s Nixon [1995]. The first hour and half of that film used a similar strategy to Che, with some of the finest filmmaking in modern Hollywood. Then in a relapse the second half of the film collapsed into a conventional biopic. It would seem that breaking free of Hollywood conventions is a serious and demanding struggle. This is where earlier Cuban films offer a something special This film does essay a final short flashback to an early scene between Guevara and Fidel Castro [Demián Bichir], but I take this to serve as a preamble to Part Two, which will deal with Guevara’s later actions in Bolivia.

    The production values of the film are high. The black and white footage is excellently done, and the colour footage in the main plot looks good. The scenes of the rebels do seem to recycle earlier conventional representations of liberation fighters. And the accompanying music also sounds reminiscent of earlier films. But there is a serious attempt to recreate character, situations and setting from 1950s Cuba. The actors mainly strive for authenticity and are fairly successful in this. There is not much of an attempt to represent the interior person: and given the approach of the film this is valid. Apart from the last half-an-hour the film avoids trying to over-heroicize Guevara as an individual.

    I do feel that Che has a number of flaws, and since the film deals with actual people and events, these are serious. But these are a revolution and revolutionaries who have been frequently depicted on commercial cinema screens. One remembers Havana [1990], which I liked as a film but which reduced the Cuba revolution to a dramatic space for melodramatic romance. A parallel example would be Under Fire [1983], where the politics of the Sandinista took a very poor fourth place to action, romance, stars and an idealised portrait of the US media. The new Che operates at a different level. It is just as effective in movie terms as the earlier films but at least manages to draw attention to the political discourse at the heart of the Cuban revolution.

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