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Che Chat: Point/Counterpoint

By Rob Christopher in Arts & Entertainment on Jan 19, 2009 9:00PM

2009_1_14che.jpg Give the man some props: even after three installments of the Ocean's series of uberglossy heist capers, Steven Soderbergh isn't afraid to be audacious. In an interview with the Onion AV Club, Soderbergh declared, "The time to do the trickiest shit is when you're sitting pretty. When I've been on an upswing, I've tried as much as possible to start pulling out the stuff that's tricky." A 257-minute long movie about Che Guevara, almost entirely in Spanish, showing in two parts with an intermission, is tricky.

Part 1 (The Argentine) centers on Guevara's involvement in the Cuban revolution, when a rough and ready outfit led by Fidel Castro engineers an overthrow of the U.S.-backed Batista government. The battle for Santa Clara, complete with snipers and urban warfare, is its centerpiece. Guevara's 1964 visit to the United Nations and New York's high society acts as a framing device; Guevara's answers to a journalist's questions add an additional layer of meaning to the action. Part 2 (Guerrilla) flashes forward several years to 1966 and Guevara's disastrous attempt to instigate revolution in Bolivia, which would end the following year with his execution. It shows with meticulous care exactly how an uprising can fail. Both parts begin with animated maps to give the viewer a sense of the geography.

After seeing the 1:30 screening on Saturday with fellow Chicagoist Samantha Abernathy, we sat down and shared our reactions.

Samantha: I think I didn't learn much about the sort of emotion and drive that it takes to inspire a person like Che Guevara. I think going into this, I was looking for emotion and not a "Revolution for Dummies" guide. But it is a really beautiful film, and Del Toro does a really good job.

Rob: Benicio was amazing! I mean, there was no acting on display there ... he was Che at every moment.

Samantha: Oh yes, if they slipped in some frames of Che, I never would have noticed it.

Rob: But I think Soderbergh was less concerned with what motivates a revolution than with what happens when a group of people decide to launch a revolution ... sort of like, well, here's what happens when a revolution succeeds (Part 1) and here's what happens when it utterly fails (Part 2). Did you think the portrayal of Che felt accurate?

Samantha: I think so, but I felt like they left politics out of it a little too much, to downplay his Marxism.

Rob: For me the key line was near the end of Part 1, when the journalist asks him, "How does it feel to be a symbol?" To me the movie was about what Che symbolizes, rather than any kind of conventional biography. What it really means to want/fight for a revolution, instead of a portrait of Che the man, his inner workings, etc. "When you say you want a revolution, here are the ramifications of that."

Samantha: I see that. But I feel like I never knew enough about supporting characters (because they died off so quickly) that I saw the effect Che had on them.

Rob: True. The supporting characters are not fleshed out. But to me it sort of captured what it must be like to fight alongside someone very intensely and briefly, and then suddenly they're killed. What did you think of the 2-part structure?

Samantha: Well, Part 1 is much more interesting, there's no doubt about that. In both parts they spend so much time walking around, but they break it up in the first one by cutting to scenes from his interview with the journalist and his speech at the UN. In the second, the only breaks are to scenes of leaders in Bolivia conspiring against him, which is much less interesting and I feel like if I hadn't already known what the Bolivian leaders were doing, I wouldn't have understood it.

Rob: Yes, it's really all about the geography. I really appreciated the maps at the beginning of both parts.

Samantha: I liked the maps, too. I'm glad they acknowledged that we don't really know anything about Cuba, and it helped to understand how far they had to travel and fight before they made it to Havana. But I wish I could have had a timeline or some better understanding of where he was, and when.

Rob: You know how with most trilogies, the middle installment is usually the boring one? I'm thinking of the second Star Wars trilogy for example. You know, just filling things in until you get the part 3, the good stuff. I thought the brilliant thing about Che is that basically it gives us the first and the last parts of a trilogy ... and the middle part is what happens during the intermission; meaning, the film wants us to fill in the blanks with our own imaginations, or do further investigation on our own after the movie's over.

Samantha: Ooo, I like that. It did make me want to do more reading and made me realize how little people really know about that guy on the t-shirt.

Rob: Plus, you know, guerrilla warfare is just confusing! And messy! And no one really knows what's going on even when you're right there. Just look at Iraq or Afghanistan. I'm pleased that the movie didn't try to make everything nice and tidy.

Samantha: True, very true. I thought a lot about Iraq during those scenes at the battle in Santa Clara. That was my favorite part, Santa Clara. And one thing that was very clear was that Che wasn't the one creating some mystical following around him.

Rob: Yeah.

Samantha: People just believed in him. No questions asked. But I felt like the "Can you read and write?" and the doctoring was a little bit of forced heroism on the part of the script.

Rob: Del Toro played him as a very unflappable guy. He's made up his mind and there is no room for doubts or wavering whatsoever. That's why in Part 2 he's a bit of a madman. He can't see the reality of the situation because he's blinded by his utter conviction.

Samantha: In a way he's a bit of a control freak. He doesn't even get that upset when people die.

Rob: He's steeled against it, so it becomes his biggest strength and his ultimate downfall.

Samantha: Now let's discuss the length, because toward the end, when my ass was going numb, I started to feel like it didn't need to be that long. I felt like it was a chore, but I enjoyed it. Like a Jane Austen novel.

Rob: Part 1 is so completely compelling. But when Part 1 ends you feel like, wait, there's still something more to this story. Part 1 is exhilarating, but it's like with Part 2 Soderbergh wants to make sure that we understand that in most cases revolutions fail, and here's how. It's a meticulous portrait of exactly how things can (and usually) go wrong. I think that only seeing Part 1 would be very unsatisfying and unbalanced.

Samantha: Yes. Part 1 alone would make Che look like a mystical hero. But Part 2 is when you really appreciate that he's a real, fallible person.

Rob: And of course, had this been a "typical" Hollywood movie, there only would have been a Part 1. And it would have felt fake somehow. Part 2 is kind of a long slog, but by the end you really feel a balance.

Samantha: Right. I definitely like the movie more now than I did when I left the theater. I needed to digest it.

Rob: Yes, totally. I feel like this movie will not be as good on DVD, when you can pause it, come back to it, watch it whenever. You totally need that immersion for it to work. 2 hours, an intermission, another 2 hours. You need to be able to see it on a really big screen in order to take in all the details of the terrain, and there aren't a lot of closeups either.

Samantha: I see that. Benicio Del Toro is the star, but the scenery is the most compelling supporting cast member.

Rob: So are you going to recommend this movie to people?

Samantha: Hmm. I'd recommend it to some, but I don't know many people that I think would enjoy it. I'd say it takes someone with a vested interest in the topic to fully appreciate it.

Rob: Yeah, it's a very demanding movie. It's entertaining, but it's not entertainment.

Samantha: Totally. I was exhausted by the end, but I think part of that was from reading the subtitles. I feel like I've been pretty negative, but I swear I liked it!

Rob: This movie was a very intense experience for me, but it leaves plenty of room for reaction and disagreement. I would say see this movie with friends in a theater, on the big screen, or don't see it at all.