Friday, January 16, 2009

Ernesto "Che" Guevara, France, And The Bomb

"Steven Soderbergh has made a 257-minute film, in two parts, about the life of Che Guevara, an undertaking that's baffling in a number of ways.

To be specific, it's possible to watch all four hours and 17 minutes of this picture and still not be sure why Soderbergh told this man's story, why he thought it was worth such epic treatment and why he handled his subject with such glowing veneration.

If Soderbergh made as idol-worshiping an epic about George Washington or Abraham Lincoln - actual heroes with tangible, positive legacies - people would gag at the naive treatment.

Perhaps with 'Che,' the hope is that audiences might be confused or browbeaten into reverence, into just assuming they're missing something.

Instead of making the case for Guevara as a hero, Soderbergh just assumes we all agree.

The movie is the communist guerrilla version of the Stations of the Cross, in which we see Guevara at various stages, enduring various hardships.

The invitation is not to think but to admire, and maybe to worship.

Soderbergh and his screenwriters (Peter Buchman and Benjamin A. van der Veen) barely dramatize scenes.

Rather they present them in an uninflected way, as though to re-create a textured, real-life sense of what it must have been like to actually be there, on the ground, in this supposedly amazing time with this supposedly great man.

This is, incidentally, how the French filmmaker Jacques Rivette presented Joan of Arc in his two-part epic, 'Joan the Maid' - a film that bears more than a casual resemblance to 'Che.'

But in 'Joan the Maid,' the attitude of reverence didn't seem misplaced.

Here it occasionally borders on the absurd.

To be sure, Guevara, man and legend, had impressive personal traits:

He was brave and brilliant, dedicated to his cause and a rock star among revolutionaries.

Guevara is the rare case of a man who was at least as handsome and charismatic as the actor who plays him onscreen, Benicio Del Toro.

But what's the legacy?

Guevara helped lead the Cuban revolution, which ushered in Fidel Castro.

Thanks to Guevara, the poor weren't quite as poor and a corrupt regime was toppled, but in its place came a totalitarian dictatorship.

Fifty years after the so-called liberation, there has been no free election in Cuba.

Then Guevara went to Bolivia to bring the joys of totalitarian communism to that country - as though that were a good thing, and as though the United States might just forget the Monroe Doctrine and tolerate another Soviet satellite in Latin America.

If Soderbergh wanted to make a case that such actions by Guevara were indeed useful and heroic, rather than blindly utopian and destructive, 'Che' could have been a provocative and fascinating polemic.

But because Soderbergh won't dive into the realm of ideas, his movie becomes a series of noble tableaux, and watching it is like sitting through a slow, four-hour worship service in the woods."


-- Mick LaSalle, reviewing an awful film, an awful man, and an awful re-writing of history, in The San Francisco Chronicle.