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CHE (aka: GUERRILLA) (aka: THE ARGENTINE)(director: Steven Soderbergh; screenwriters: Peter Buchman/Benjamin A. van der Veen/based on the Bolivian Diary by Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara; cinematographer: Steven Soderbergh; editor: Pablo Zumárraga; music: Alberto Iglesias; cast: Benicio Del Toro (Che), Demian Bichir (Fidel Castro), Santiago Cabrera (Camillo Cienfuegos), Elvira Minguez (Celia Sanchez), Jorge Perugorria (Joaquin), Edgar Ramirez (Ciro Redondo), Victor Rasuk (Rogelio Acevedo), Franka Potente (Tania), Matt Damon (Guest), Mark Umbers (Roth), Joaquim de Almedia (Bolivian President; Runtime: 258; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Laura Bickford/Benicio Del Toro; IFC Films; 2008-Spain/France/USA-in Spanish and English with some English subtitles)
“It never gets over being as dry as a Communist manifesto.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A well-constructed and well-researched but overlong and flat over four hour ambitiously complex but nondramatic and neutral tribute to slain Argentinean doctor turned Marxist revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara, who met his Maker in Bolivia some forty years ago. Director Steven Soderbergh (“Solaris”/”Ocean’s Thirteen”/”The Good German”) divides his epic tribute into two parts to soften the load, but its inability to be inspiring sinks this ‘fighting the system’ themed biopic even if it has a strange fascination that can’t easily be disregarded. Its uncinematic, out of school, history lesson, entertains a keen eye for details and a relentless coverage of Che that allows us to observe the no-nonsense revolutionist in action as both a healer and destroyer. But it never gets over being as dry as a Communist manifesto and never brings Che to life as a real human being with a heart and a soul.

Though the DVD serves up one showing on two discs, it was originally supposed to be mercifully released as separate pictures–“The Argentine” and “Guerrilla.”

Part 1 tells of the exiled in Mexico Fidel Castro (Demián Bichir) meeting Che (Benicio Del Toro) for the first time in the house of a woman supporter and sailing to Cuba in 1956 to mount a guerrilla fought revolution with 80 revolutionaries that included Che (of which only 12 would survive to see victory). Che is an uncompromising radicalized world traveler who shares Castro’s dream of overthrowing the corrupt American supported dictator Fulgencio Batista and is deeply committed to the revolutionary course after witnessing immense poverty among the lower classes in his Latin American travels as a medical student and declaring solidarity with them. Che rises through the ranks to act first as a doctor and then earns Fidel’s trust to become a commander of a guerrilla unit, and heroically leads his forces to victory in the key battle over Santa Clara. After this victory ensures the downfall of Batista, Che is looked upon as a revolutionary hero and becomes an international counterculture icon known for his unswerving dedication to the cause and hardline punitive punishment to his foes. The action veers back and forth between the jungle fighting in the late 1950s and Che’s visit to NYC in 1964 to address the United Nations and meet with world leaders (filmed in black and white), with actual newsreel footage thrown into the mix from time to time. It ends after showing many jungle skirmishes, but not the rebels final victorious drive led by Che into Havana in 1959.

Part 2 has Batista overthrown and the new Cuban leader Fidel Castro, in 1966, sending Che, at the peak of his power, to Bolivia to spread the Marxist revolution. Che sneaks into Bolivia with a new identity, and with the help of a few Cuban expatriates recruits a guerrilla army in the jungle. The Bolivian dictator (Joaquim de Almedia) elicits financial aid and military advisers from the United States, and the efforts for a Latin American revolution fail when Che can’t gather enough support from the mistrustful of foreigners Bolivian communists and peasants. Che will be captured in 1967 in the Bolivian mountains and almost immediately executed at the spot of his capture by the Bolivian army. Suffering throughout from a chronic asthma condition, Che will still have enough gumption to write his diary while in Bolivia. It was used as source material for the film, that was scripted by Peter Buchman and Benjamin A. van der Veen.

Soderbergh offers no voice pro or con in regards to Che’ life work that was seeped in violence, only stolen glimpses of the controversial leader, and thereby keeps it emotionally drained of feeling. We’re left mostly with a mechanically sound innovative and occasionally sparkling biopic, that’s finely structured and stunningly gorgeous in its visuals. Despite its effort to be ingenuous, it looms more as an academic exercise even as it strains to be different from the usual Hollywood biopic. I just didn’t need 258 minutes or so to fill me into Che’s jungle time military strategy in both Cuba and Bolivia without at least giving me the opportunity to better understand why the charismatic freedom fighter, humanitarian and intellectual with such a violent history (presided over the executions of the enemy and openly stated his desire that Soviet sent nuclear missiles be fired at the U.S.) became such a legendary figure in our pop culture (his portrait on a T-shirt is still popular among many of the younger hipsters). Even though I respect the thoroughness of the project, I wasn’t overwhelmed with the results. But I guess it’s better to see Soderbergh tackle difficult and more hefty projects like this one, even if they misfire, then have him hang around with Danny Ocean and his crew making vacuous commercial flicks (supposedly so he can afford to make artistic films like this one).

REVIEWED ON 12/11/2008 GRADE: C+

Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”