"...the main purpose of criticism...is not to make its readers agree, nice as that is, but to make them, by whatever orthodox or unorthodox method, think." - John Simon

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." - George Orwell

Thursday, January 14, 2010

DVD of the Week: Che: Criterion Collection

Che (2008) began as a personal project for actor Benicio del Toro around the time he was making Traffic (2000) with Steven Soderbergh. Originally, he planned on making the film about iconic revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara with Terrence Malick and its focus was to be on the disastrous Bolivian campaign in 1967. Malick eventually dropped out to go off and make The New World (2005). Soderbergh helped out Del Toro by agreeing to direct and in the process expanded the film’s scope by depicting Che’s role in the Cuban Revolution as a way of explaining his motivations for going to Bolivia.

Amazingly, Soderbergh raised the $58 million budget entirely outside of North America which allowed him much more creative freedom. The result was a four and half hour epic that refused to champion or demonize Che and instead opted to objectively depict his rise in Cuba and his fall in Bolivia. This approach ultimately doomed Che’s chances in North America where, despite breaking the film up into two more digestible parts, it received limited distribution. Predictably, it divided critics and was criminally ignored by all of the major award ceremonies – rather fitting for a film about someone who refused to rest on his laurels, always hungry to get back to the jungle and get back to work.

I think that the key to understanding Del Toro and Soderbergh’s take on Che comes from an interview with director where he said, “clearly this is a guy whose priority is going into the jungle and starting a revolution. That is the most important thing in his life … If you take away all the words and just look at what he did, the guy kept going back into the jungle.” Del Toro and Soderbergh were faced with the daunting task of making a film about an iconic historic figure, someone whose image has graced countless t-shirts and posters. Che is an extremely polarizing figure and so it makes sense that they would step back and take a more objective look at the man. Then, it would be up to the audience to decide how they felt about him.

Those looking for a crowd-pleasing underdog story a la Erin Brockovich (2000) will be disappointed by Che. The famous Argentinean is not as easy to like as the scrappy Brockovich. As depicted in Che, he’s a much more complex individual. He cares about the cause and those that fight with him but does not feel the need to show a lot of emotion. When he’s in the jungle it is all about the task at hand and living in the moment. Che never loses sight of what his objective is and his conviction never wavers, not even in the face of death. He’s like a Method actor that stays in character on and off-camera during a shoot.

Part One juxtaposes Che’s efforts to remove Batista from power in Cuba in 1958 with him addressing the United Nations in 1964 and in doing so we see Che in his element, putting into practice guerrilla warfare tactics, and we see Che the superstar espousing his beliefs to the media in New York City and the international community at large. At first, the Bolivia campaign as depicted in Part Two starts off well enough with Che sneaking into the country and meeting with his fellow revolutionaries. We see them get supplies and train in preparation for the task at hand. However, the country’s Communist party refuses to support an armed struggle, especially one led by a foreigner. The support of the peasants, so crucial in Cuba, is lacking in Bolivia, making food hard to come by. A feeling of dread creeps in as government troops gradually close in on Che, cutting off any avenue of escape.

Soderbergh maintains an objective stance by refusing to show any close-ups of Che. We always see him from a certain distance and often grouped with others. During the battle at El Uvero on May 28, 1957, Soderbergh conveys the noisy, chaotic nature of combat as men are seemingly wounded at random but there is never any confusion visually about what is going on. Twice during the battle, he takes us out of it by having a voiceover by Che where he espouses his philosophy of guerrilla warfare. With a widescreen aspect ratio, Soderbergh opens things up in Part One and this is particularly evident during the battle scenes. In Part Two, this all changes, as the smooth camerawork is replaced with hand-held cameras and a more standard aspect ratio which creates a claustrophobic feel and look. The long takes and deliberately slow pace may frustrate some expecting a more traditional biopic but I found it a welcome change from the cookie cutter mentality of most Hollywood depictions of history.

During the Cuban campaign it is evident that Che is very much a man of the people, whether it is making contact with and befriending peasants that he comes across in the jungle or treating a wounded comrade. However, Che eschews character development in favor of showing the nuts and bolts of a revolution. As Che says at one point, “A real revolutionary goes where he’s needed. It may not be directly in combat. Sometimes it’s about doing other tasks … finding food, dressing wounds, carrying comrades for miles … and then, taking care of them until they can take care of themselves.” The film takes this philosophy to heart by showing the day-to-day activities of Che and his fellow revolutionaries. We see him dressing wounds, the wounded being carried through the jungle and strategizing with his men and Fidel Castro (Demian Bichir).

Benicio del Toro effortlessly becomes Che and tones down his tendency to sometimes resort to Brando-esque acting tics (see The Way of the Gun) and plays the iconic revolutionary as a man confident of his own convictions. He conveys Che’s sharp intellect with his eyes and also does an excellent job with the physical aspects like his recurring asthma that constantly plagued him. Del Toro provides us insight into the man’s character through attitude, behavior and the way he acts towards others.

Che is ultimately a study in contrasts. What worked in Cuba did not work in Bolivia. Soderbergh’s film illustrates the differences. In Cuba, the revolutionaries were able to get the trust and support of the peasants while in Bolivia they feared the rebels. It must also be said that Castro played a key role in the success of the Cuban revolution and his absence in Bolivia, the galvanizing effect he had, is sorely missed. With Che, Soderbergh has created an unusual biopic that does its best to not try and manipulate you into feeling one way or another about the revolutionary. Instead, it shows two very different examples of the man’s philosophies put into practice and how they played out – one a success and the other a failure. Che was a polarizing historical figure long before this film came along and will continue to be long afterwards.

Special Features:

The first disc includes an audio commentary for Part One by Jon Lee Anderson, chief consultant on Che and author of Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life. He starts off by calling Che a “hippie rebel,” and a product of the 1960s. He talks about the corruption and decadence of Cuba under Batista and how this provoked men like Che and Fidel Castro to start a revolution. Anderson provides extensive historical background to what we are watching which fills in a lot of gaps and often explains what is being shown, putting it into context.

Also included is a theatrical trailer.

The second disc sees Anderson return for an audio commentary for Part Two. He explains Che’s fascination with Bolivia at an early age and why he chose that country to start a revolution. He talks about the political conditions in Bolivia that made it ripe for a revolution. Like he did with Part One, Anderson provides the backstory and elaborates in detail on what we are watching.

The third and final disc starts off with “Making Che,” a 50-minute documentary that takes a look at how the film came together. It started with producer Laura Bickford and her interested in Jon Lee Anderson’s book. She got Benicio del Toro involved and they spent years doing research and deciding what part of his life to depict. The film’s screenwriters talk about the challenge of condensing so many events into one film and so Soderbergh decided to split it up into two films. The director explains his depiction of Che, including the omission of the man’s more questionable actions, and his approach to the film. This is an excellent, in-depth look.

There are ten deleted scenes from Part One with optional commentary by Soderbergh. He puts this footage in context and explains why it was cut. These scenes provide some insight into Che and it’s nice to be able to see them.

Also included are four deleted scenes from Part Two with optional commentary by Soderbergh. Much of this footage illustrates Che’s philosophy of guerrilla warfare.

“End of a Revolution” is a 1968 documentary about the aftermath of Che’s failed revolution in Bolivia, the origins of it and a look at the forces that prevented it. The featurette begins with stills of Che’s dead body and a journalist describing the scene, his voice full of emotion. The doc does a nice job of profiling Bolivia and its people; for example, we see the brutal living and working conditions of the tin miners.

“Interviews from Cuba” features interviews with participants and historians of the Cuban Revolution conducted by producer Laura Bickford and actor Benicio del Toro. The participants talk about how they met Che and their impressions of him. They also discuss their views on the revolution. The historians talk about the key influences on the revolution and take us through significant moments of it.

Finally, there is “Che and the Digital Cinema Revolution!” Soderbergh’s film was the first feature to use the Red digital camera because of its quality and versatility in the terrain he would be shooting in. He did not have a lot of time to shoot Che and needed a camera that would allow him to shoot fast and not require a lot of artificial light. The cameras almost weren’t ready for the start of principal photography but Soderbergh stuck to his guns was able to get them just in time. This doc does a nice job taking a look at the challenges of using the Red camera and how it was the ideal technology for this particular film.


  1. Can't wait for this on Blu-ray. It's not an easy film to glide into, but it's masterfully shot and acted. How Del Tor didn't get an Oscar nom is flabbergasting.

  2. christian:

    I know what you mean, re: Del Toro's performance! I remember at the SAG Awards that year when Sean Penn won he basically said that Del Toro's performance should be recognized and couldn't believe that it hadn't. I really respected him for saying that. I get the feeling because CHE was so marginalized commercially here in North America and was about such a controversial historical figure that it snubbed by all the major awards shows. Oh well. I believe that this film will stand the test of time.

  3. Thanks, JD. Just put this on my Blu rental list. Certainly a comprehensive package from Criterion, with far more bang for the buck than our UK release. Always admired Soderbergh and his philosophy, so it will be good to catch up with this one; especially after reading your thoughts.

  4. Great review, J.D. I'm really looking forward to seeing this.

    Che is an extremely polarizing figure and so it makes sense that they would step back and take a more objective look at the man.

    This is still very much the truth, especially in the U.S. I remember when The Motorcycle Diaries came out in '04. More than once, upon reading a review of the film, some film critic (I can't recall who at the moment) would slide in a political jab toward Che in the examination. Likely, the some of the reactions stem from Cold War generations and thinking. I'd dare say, many in Latin America have very different reactions to this figure in history.

    I also think Del Toro does his best work when toned down some (although, he's pretty fun to watch in THE WAY OF THE GUN and THE USUAL SUSPECTS). Thanks for reviewing this, J.D. It really makes me want to get into this.

  5. Steve Langton:

    Yeah, this film makes me wish I had the $$ for a Blu Ray player! Oh well... This is a really comprehensive package as you would expect from Criterion. Thanks for stopping by.


    I've seen THE MOTORCYCLE DIARIES and enjoyed it quite a bit. As Soderbergh has said in interviews you could do a 100 different films about Che because there is so much material to draw from and so many angles at which to look at the man and his life. I like that Soderbergh allows us to draw our own conclusions.

    I do like Del Toro and actually really enjoy him in THE WAY OF THE GUN. I was stretching to find an example of a film where he goes all Brando in terms of acting. He does that in THE USUAL SUSPECTS too but it works well off the other actors.