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Movie Review

Reviewed by A.O. Scott

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Nearly four and a half hours long, spanning more than a decade and reconstructing a pair of brutal insurgencies, "Che" surely deserves the overworked, frequently misapplied name of epic. Steven Soderbergh's new film, a two-part portrait of the Argentine doctor-turned-international revolutionary Ernesto Guevara (it opened in limited U.S. release as one film on Friday and will open as two films worldwide early next year), plants itself squarely in an old tradition of martial poetry: it sings of arms and the man.

But in chronicling the deeds of their hero - and the heroism of Ernesto Guevara is not something "Che" has any interest in questioning - Soderbergh and the screenwriter, Peter Buchman, restrict themselves to a narrow register of themes and effects. This is a very long song composed in about three notes. Its motifs are facial hair, tobacco smoke and earnest militant bombast. (The excellent score, less austere in its moods and effects, is by Alberto Iglesias.)

The first half, detailing the grinding campaign of Fidel Castro's guerrilla army against the government of Fulgencio Batista, which culminated in Batista's ouster in 1959, is intercut with scenes of a visit to New York that Guevara made in 1964 to address the UN General Assembly. Those bits, shot in a gorgeously grainy mock-antique black-and-white, offer a bit of visual relief from the long slog through the Cuban countryside, as well as providing an occasion for defiant revolutionary apologetics.

The New York passages also establish Guevara's status as a demon in the eyes of the U.S. government and a celebrity and fetish object for, as far as the movie is concerned, just about everyone else.

Journalists interview him in purring, fawning tones. An unctuous fan in round spectacles asks for an autograph. Cocktail party guests in an elegant Manhattan apartment crowd around him. But Che, media star and darling of the international left-leaning intelligentsia, regards the fuss with detachment, preferring to sit and smoke with the common folk in kitchens and back rooms.

"Che," in effect, represents the position of a person at that cocktail party who feels superior to the others because, unlike those liberal phonies, he really understands, in the depths of his soul, the Cuban revolution and the agonies of the third world. More dogmatic than thou (and certainly than Walter Salles's 2004 "Motorcycle Diaries," a vivid and sympathetic picture of the young Ernesto Guevara), "Che" not only participates in the worship of its subject but also spares no effort to insulate him from skepticism.

Benicio Del Toro's performance is technically flawless: you can be sure when he crooks his arm to look at his watch, or squints at a comrade through a plume of pipe smoke, or peels an orange, that you are seeing the thing done exactly as Che would have done it. He also infuses the character with the full and considerable measure of his own charisma.

But the charisma is the whole of the performance. Jean-Paul Sartre once called Guevara "the most complete human being of our time," a description that in a way means the opposite of what it seems to. Che represented, to Sartre and others, and perhaps to himself, a new kind of person, a creature of pure revolutionary integrity free of the usual trappings of bourgeois subjectivity. Those trappings, of course, are part of what make characters in movies interesting. In honoring the myth of Che as a kind of macho Marxist superman in whom thought and feeling, action and theory, passion and discipline are united, Soderbergh and Del Toro (a producer of the picture as well as its star) remove him from the realm of ordinary human sympathy.

He has friendships (with Fidel, wittily impersonated by Demián Bichir, and with Camillo Cienfuegos, played with great verve by Santiago Cabrera) and relations with women (Catalina Sandino Moreno and Franka Potente). He faces hard choices as a strategist and a field commander and is subject to crippling asthma attacks. But his inner life is off limits, except insofar as his thoughts and emotions might illuminate the exemplary character of his deeds.

"Che," in other words, is epic hagiography. Its second half, recreating Guevara's failed attempt to reproduce the Cuban revolution in Bolivia, might be called "The Passion of the Che," in honor of the fanatical fidelity with which it walks its sanctified hero through the stations of his martyrdom. (Guevara was executed in 1967 by the Bolivian military after his insurgency had been crushed.) But the film is also, in a very precise and unusual sense, an action movie. I don't just mean that it is heavy on battles and gunfights, but rather that action - what people do, as opposed to why they do it - is its primary, indeed obsessive concern.

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The narrowness I mentioned earlier comes from the decision to treat complicated and consequential political events - the Cuban revolution, for starters, and nearly everything that followed, by implication - in purely tactical terms. The precision with which Soderbergh charts the progress of Castro's army across the Cuban countryside - and the even greater meticulousness in his depiction of the unraveling Bolivian campaign - has something in common with the exertions of Civil War re-enactors or online gamers.

It's not that Soderbergh is a military history nerd; he's more of a process geek, fascinated by logistics and the intricacies of how stuff gets done. He indulged this tendency in the "Ocean's 11" franchise, and while "Che" is hardly the same type of commercial entertainment, its military operations are, like the capers in the "Ocean's" pictures, at once formal challenges and allegorical stand-ins for the act of filmmaking itself.

"Che," shot on locations in Latin America with a small crew and a new kind of lightweight digital camera, both studies and mirrors Guevara's two wars. With diagrammatic rigor, it lays out how one revolution succeeds - by cultivating popular support, by marshaling a disciplined and growing contingent of troops - and how another fails.

It communicates a sense of difficulty and frustration, and also the kind of elation that comes from being absorbed in a heroic communal task.

This self-absorption - the extent to which "Che" is a movie about itself - saves it from becoming too dull and allows you, at least temporarily, to overlook its naïve and fuzzy politics. But the film's formal sophistication is ultimately an evasion of the moral reckoning that Ernesto Guevara, more than 40 years and several million T-shirts after his death, surely deserves. Soderbergh once again offers a master class in filmmaking. As history, though, "Che" is finally not epic but romance. It takes great care to be true to the factual record, but it is, nonetheless, a fairy tale.
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