I caught the "special roadshow edition"—no commercials, no trailers, no opening credits (a free commemorative program covers that)—of Steven Soderbergh’s Guevara biopic Che at the Varsity last night. The Cuban revolution is captured in extraordinary detail; its jungle-by-jungle, house-by-house, street-by-street progression brings rousing conviction to the violence. Guerrilla warfare hasn’t had it this good since Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1966 The Battle of Algiers. Unfortunately, the ersatz Bolivian revolution that Che (Benicio Del Toro) hoped to engineer is also, in the film’s second half, captured in extraordinary detail—when the words "Day 341" popped up on screen around the 4 hour mark it felt like day 341, alright.
Del Toro gives a galvanizing central performance, particularly because he’s not trying to be galvanizing. He hasn’t outsized himself beyond all human dimension—he’s Che, not CHE.
Soderbergh’s movie, however, is definitely CHE (albeit in that low-key Soderbergh way that deftly feigns gritty "reality"). Del Toro’s Che seems to be a man with a past. Soderbergh’s Che seems to be a man with a future…on the cross. Despite his own often crippling asthma, this Che never worries more than when confronted with a sickly peasant. Believe me, in 4 1/2 hours the man confronts a lot of sickly peasants.
Guevara was, indeed, a doctor. We’ve gotten at least two movies—this and the lyrical, equally irresponsible The Motorcycle Diaires—fascinated by his healing powers. How about one film (hell, even one half a film) ready to explore the tension between healer and executioner?
Anybody with enough wherewithal to overthrow a corrupt government deserves his own film. But sainthood—or an even higher holy office—doesn’t go down well with popcorn.