Benicio Del Toro as Ernesto "Che" Guevara, pictured in a special booklet from Steven Soderbergh's films "Che Part One" and "Che Part Two", which expanded their release across much of the U.S. and Canada on January 16.

THE POPCORN REEL FILM REVIEW/"Che" (Part One) "Che" (Part Two)
A Methodical Tactician, A Resolute Revolutionary
By Omar P.L. Moore/January 17, 2009

Steven Soderbergh has taken on a versatility of projects in his prolific filmmaking career, from the color, sleekness and bluster of the "Ocean's Eleven" series to the dramatic power and heat of "Traffic", to the compelling intimacy of small films like "Bubble" and "Full Frontal" to the unexpected effect of his debut film "sex, lies and videotape".  With his latest, "Che", an epic of illumination, directness and practicality, Mr. Soderbergh captures a revolution that wasn't televised to great effect, in Part One of "Che", based on Ernesto "Che" Guevara's "Reminisces Of The Cuban Revolutionary War", a memoir of the Argentine-born doctor-turned-revolutionary guerilla for Cuba and Fidel Castro in the quest to overthrow the harsh regime of Fulgencio Batista in the late 1950's. 

Benicio Del Toro, whom Mr. Soderbergh directed to an Oscar in "Traffic", anchors both parts of "Che".  In Part One he's building his strength as the charismatic, enigmatic and very doctrinaire leader.  Mr. Del Toro is highly persuasive, pouring his all into the role without forcing us to believe.  He becomes Che through action, not through personal trait or insignia.  This makes Mr. Guevara, who in real life was somewhat distant if not aloof, something of an emotional mystery to moviegoing audiences.  Action however, is character, and Mr. Del Toro encapsulates the man and his passion for social and economic justice in several scenes both shot from afar and close up, scenes that have both a quiet strength and a matter-of-factness to them that are peaceful and impacting on numerous levels.  Mr. Soderbergh's Part One slowly and steadily progresses, albeit without the manufactured devices or enticements that other films on noted historical figures, with Mr. Soderbergh's cinematography -- his pseudonym is Peter Andrews, named after his father -- as the highlight of Part One, its naturalistic visions and textures at times boring through the screen as if trying to pull us in.  Captured impressively is the 1958 Battle Of Les Mercedes, the war which essentially breaks the final remaining vertebrae of the U.S.-supported Batista dictatorship.  Mr. Del Toro's work during these sequences is particularly noteworthy, as is his portrayal during his famous speech at the United Nations in 1964, which is shot in black and white.

Aside from Mr. Del Toro in Part One are solid performances by Demian Bechir as Fidel Castro, with Mr. Bechir a towering yet unobtrusive presence.  Both actors play off each other very well.  And Rodrigo Santoro (who was in "The Motorcycle Diaries") plays Raul Castro.

With: Catalina Sandino Moreno, Yul Vasquez , Ramon Fernandez and Julia Ormond.  "Part One" is written by Peter Buchman.  "Part One" running time is two hours and eight minutes.  MPAA rating: Unrated.

In Part Two, which is based on Mr. Guevara's "The Bolivian Diary", Mr. Del Toro continues his mastery of Ernesto "Che" Guevara, this time in the mid-1960's, seeking to lead a revolt against the Bolivian government.  After a self-imposed exile, Mr. Guevara disguised himself and entered Bolivia, soon building an army of rebels who would wage a revolutionary war which ultimately failed.  Mr. Soderbergh's camera here is more urgent and intrusive, handheld shots dominating the frame.  The director succeeds in making Part Two an effective hybrid of action film and documentary, although one could also say that Part Two is the action, where Part One is the documentary.  There are a few traces of battle scenes evoking the extraordinary classic black-and-white film "The Battle Of Algiers", though that film is still singular almost 50 years later in its shocking ability to be so powerfully real as a non-documentary feature film.  Much of Part Two is shot cinema-verite style, creating a feeling of being on the ground as Mr. Guevara the revolutionary guerilla leader is in the thick of the fighting, which collectively occupies almost an hour of the film.  Occasionally the battle scenes are interrupted by moments of pure beauty or reflection, with the cinematography more personal to Mr. Guevara's point of view.  This perhaps, is the closest we get to the man himself, though we still don't feel we know him on a personal level.

Mr. Soderbergh makes use of one of his "Ocean's" alumnus in Part Two and that person's presence in a cameo doesn't at all disrupt the film, which is completely absorbing without being overwhelming or exhausting.  There's another cameo that likewise doesn't stop the film in its tracks.  Mr. Bechir continues to do well as Fidel Castro, attaining a credibility and presence that grows.  Throughout, we see how the people of Cuba relate to Mr. Guevara as much as they do Mr. Castro if not more, treating Mr. Guevara like a rock star, even while the film (both parts) does not.  The real Mr. Guevara may have been a mystery but he was well-loved by the people he fought for.  Catalina Sandino Moreno has a more prominent role as Aleida, the woman Mr. Guevara marries after having a months-long affair with her while still married to his first wife.  Ms. Moreno, whose work in "Maria, Full Of Grace" and "The Hottest State", is quite striking, is economical here in her role as the committed wife of a revolutionary.  Aleida is an integral component of the actions and philosophies espoused by her husband.  There's some good work in small roles by Othello Rensoli as Pombo, a revolutionary soldier in Mr. Guevara's guerilla army; Norman Santiago as Tuma, another trusted soldier, and Franka Potente as Tania, who enthusiastically wishes to aid in Mr. Guevara's revolutionary cause.

With: Oscar Aviles, Ruben Salinas, Diego Ortiz, Marise Alvarez and Carlos Bardem.  "Part Two" is written by Peter Buchman and Benjamin A. Van Der Been.  Part Two running time is two hours and nine minutes.  Rating: Unrated, but includes violence, as well as brief violence against a horse.

As a film Part One is stronger, but as a drama Part Two is more vivid and exciting.  Mr. Soderbergh achieves a vision that soaks us.  He neither exalts, exasperates nor explains Che Guevara, he does the wisest thing of all: he shows us a fascinating man at work.

"Che Part One" and "Che Part Two" require separate admission for each film and expanded their releases yesterday in San Francisco and several other U.S. cities.  On Wednesday, January 21 both films will be released as a video on demand in the U.S., with further theatrical expansion in North America on January 23.

The Popcorn Reel Hot Minute YouTube Review "Che Part One" and "Che Part Two"

Related: The Popcorn Reel Sunday Popcorn Profile - Steven Soderbergh talks "Che" and Hollywood vs. Independent Filmmaking


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