CHE

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“How does it feel to be a symbol?” Benicio del Toro is asked in his role as Che Guevara. “Of what?” he replies and is told: “The revolution.” But in Che, Steven Soderbergh’s two-part art thing, this revolution is about style—not politics. After decades as a poster boy for counterculture hipness, Che Guevara provides Soderbergh a pretext for another idiosyncratic, uncharismatic enterprise. (This one makes Bubble look like Gone With The Wind.)

Out-perversing Gus Van Sant’s Milk, Soderbergh makes a four-hour-plus biopic about a historical figure without providing a glimmer of charm or narrative coherence. One can’t accuse Soderbergh of pandering to feel-good piety because Che proudly resists sentimentality about people’s power, distribution of wealth, Marxist theology, radical chic or morbid celebrity. Soderbergh glosses all that, yet still wins Leftist critical acclaim (and a Cannes Best Actor prize for Del Toro’s inexpressive performance) because Che—dead or deadening—remains a politically correct icon.

Benicio del Toro goes for Oscar with his portrayal of the famous revolutionary in Soderbergh’s Che.

Benicio del Toro goes for Oscar with his portrayal of the famous revolutionary in Soderbergh’s Che.

It requires some new kind of orneriness to take Che’s famous image (saintly pose in beret with a star or sexy pose with a cheroot hanging from his lip) and continuously alienate an audience from what it represents. Che’s two halves are divided between his international fame exporting the Cuban revolution (speaking at the U.N., meeting the press) and then his Bolivian sojourn in late 1960s. Time-jumping meta-narrative contrasted with a de-centered guerrilla war semi-doc. Both halves defy absolute comprehension. Sequences are designed to prevent emotional involvement; part one is projected at 1.85 aspect ratio, part two at 1.66. This obstinate artiness resembles a Lars Von Trier scam; sure enough, each half opens with long map montages, emulating the interstitial montages of Von Trier’s Breaking the Waves—not a good sign.

In Spain Rodriguez’s new comic-book novel, Che: A Graphic Biography (Verso), a poignant narrative interruption recounts Rodriguez’s own memory of living through the Cuban missile crisis. It makes Che’s significance personal and immediate. Soderbergh doesn’t bother; he’s above the personal revelations of Latin American political drama as risked by Alex Cox’s Walker and Pontecorvo’s Burn. Neither rabble-rousing politician, humanist historian or trailblazing artiste, Soderbergh’s a Pseud.

Che
Directed by Steven Soderbergh, Running Time: 257 min.

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