Che: Part One (2008) ☆☆☆(3/4): Che at the right place and time

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Steven Soderbergh’s “Che”, which happened to be released in South Korea in last weekend, is probably his most ambitious work during last two decades. While it is often a bit too dry and austere for some of you, this still works as an engaging observation of one fascinating historical figure, and you may be impressed by its achievements regardless of your opinion on that figure in question.

The movie is divided into two parts: “The Argentine” and “Guerilla”. While these two parts are inseparable in terms of storytelling, I decided to review each of them because they are separately shown in South Korea, so the review will mainly focus on what I felt and observed as watching “The Argentine” at a local arthouse movie theater in my hometown.

Mainly set in Cuba during 1955-59, “The Argentine” looks into the slow but eventual political advance of Ernesto “Che” Guevara (Benicio del Toro), a young Argentine doctor who became a communist revolutionary as associating himself with Fidel Castro and other Cuban communist revolutionaries. After the opening scene showing their secret meeting in Mexico City, the movie promptly shows them leaving for Cuba for beginning their revolution, and then we see Guevara operating in a rural region of Cuba along with a number of soldiers under his command.

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Now this looks like the familiar setup for an epic war film, but the movie strenuously avoids clichés and conventions as firmly sticking to the ongoing situation surrounding Guevara and his soldiers. While we sometime hear about what is going on in the other parts of Cuba, we never get the whole big picture of the Cuban revolution, and the movie simply moves from one episodic moment to another while seldom paying attention to various other characters in the film besides Guevara.

This can be quite tedious and burdensome to you at first if you do not know much about Guevara’s life, but, thanks to Soderbergh’s deft direction, the movie gradually draws more attention from us via its uncompromising presentation of Guevara via a single-minded narrative focus. While looking usually quiet and pensive, Guevara in the film is presented as an intense man quite determined to devote himself to his ideological belief, and you can sense that he would have went all the way for his cause even if he and Castro had lost. Fortunately for them, many people in Cuba had been pretty sick of Fulgencio Batista’s dictatorship at that time, and the movie occasionally show us how they came to gain more support in public. As Castro occupies more of Cuba step by step, more left-wing political factions gather around Castro, and we observe how Guevara and his soldiers steadily draw more favor from those poor peasants out there. At one point, Guevara orders the execution of two deserters for what they did to a peasant family, and that certainly makes a good impression on locals.

In addition, the morale is not that high among Batista’s police officers and soldiers, especially when it becomes clearer to everyone in Cuba that things are indeed falling apart for his regime. Around the time when Guevara and his soldiers come into a city named Santa Clara in late December of 1958, the sense of defeat is palpable among their opponents, and there is a brief amusing moment when a colonel hurriedly walks away from his position with a false excuse.

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During the part depicting the Battle of Santa Clara, the mood becomes more tense as expected, but Soderbergh deliberately stays away from any chance of thrill or excitement. While efficiently conveying to us the considerable peril surrounding Guevara and other soldiers around him, the movie adamantly maintains its dry, clinical tone nonetheless, and Castro and his revolutionaries’ eventual triumph is presented as something no more than a flat historical fact to induce some thoughts and reflections from us. To be frank with you, as phlegmatically watching many Cuban people cheering for the end of Batista’s dictatorship on the screen, I could not help but reflect on how Castro and Guevara subsequently opened the door to another dark period of oppression, which has lasted for more than 60 years.

Although my political stance is quite far from Guevara’s (I am a liberal who grew up as a staunch anti-communist, by the way), I still think Guevara in the film is an interesting human figure to observe, and Benecio del Toro, who deservedly received the Best Actor award when the movie was shown at the Cannes Film Festival in 2008, is flawless in his unadorned natural performance. Without any artificial moment, he diligently and stoically carries the film from the beginning to the end, and the other notable supporting performers in the film are also effective while being more or less than mere parts of the historical/political background surrounding Guevara in the film, though Demián Bichir, Rodrigo Santoro, Édgar Ramírez, and Oscar Issac probably draw more notice from us now considering the current status of their respective acting careers.

Anyway, “The Argentine” establishes well the ground for “Guerilla”, and you will admire them more if you watch them together. I must confess that the recent viewing of “The Argentine” and “Guerilla” did not change my initial opinion on them much, but they are still worthwhile to watch thanks to Soderbergh and del Toro’s admirable efforts, so I recommend you to try “The Argentine” first.

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