A plush mix of epic movie staples—a well-known historical story, exotic locations, precise period details, a larger-than-life leading man and a colorful cast of supporting characters—reveals a new side to veteran filmmaker Steven Soderbergh. Che, comprised of two stand-alone, Spanish-language films that tell the life story of revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara from his role in the Cuban revolution (part one) to his failed attempt to overthrow the government in Bolivia (part two), is Soderbergh’s most ambitious film to date.
After acquiring North American rights to Che at the Toronto International Film Festival, IFC Films can expect placement on year-end critics’ lists, positive word of mouth and awards consideration for leading man Benicio del Toro—all of which should guarantee strong box office for the film’s planned Oscar-qualifying runs in Los Angeles and New York in late December. Any Academy Awards noms for Del Toro and Soderbegh, as well as a potential Best Picture nod for Che, will ultimately determine the overall success of the film when the New York-based arthouse outfit re-opens Che in January. If IFC can market Che as a must-see movie event, they will likely overcome the films’ combined 262-minute length (not counting a planned 20-minute intermission) and mostly Spanish-language dialogue. Without key awards, IFC can claim supporting Soderbergh on his greatest movie undertaking—although one with limited commercial potential in the United States. DVD and home-video sales look less risky due to Soderbergh’s name recognition.
With his best script to date, screenwriter Peter Buchman ( Eragon, Jurassic Park III ) emphasizes character over action and small, intimate moments over grand spectacle. How Guevara greets his revolutionary volunteers—shaking each hand—makes more of an impact than any of the explosive battle sequences with Cuban leader General Batista’s army.
Editor Pablo Zumárraga brings a steady, almost contemplative rhythm to both sections of the film. Production designer Antxón Gómez makes every moment believable, whether set in a jungle hut, the fierce fighting in Cuba’s Las Villas province or New York’s United Nations headquarters, thanks to precise attention to detail.
Demián Bichir shines as Fidel Castro, as does Rodrigo Santoro as his brother Raul, but the film’s standout performance is Del Toro’s—a compelling, sympathetic hero with his shaggy hair, scruffy beard and trademark military beret. Del Toro takes an iconic figure, one best known as an image on countless T-shirts, and makes him flawed, constantly wheezing from asthma and fully and emotionally grounded. For Del Toro, who’s in almost every scene of the movie, Che is a tour de force.
Soderbergh, who also shot both parts under the pseudonym Peter Andrews, can claim 17 films to his credit, but none of them match the scope of Che. While Che invites fair comparisons to the best known of epic moviemakers, David Lean, Soderbergh shows a level of risk taking and emotional grit missing from Lean’s famous films Lawrence of Arabia and Dr. Zhivago. In fact, Che shares little in common with Brazilian director Walter Salles’ 2004 road drama about Guevara’s early years, The Motorcycle Diaries. While Salles’ movie contained frequent moments of humor and Lean-inspired melodrama, Soderbergh gives his epic a more tragic spin, emphasizing Guevara’s setbacks and ultimate failure in Bolivia.
If there’s a slight fault with Soderbergh’s movie, it’s that he does not capture all the moments of Guevara’s journey as the world’s most famous revolutionary, including the victorious arrival of Castro’s rebel army into Havana. Still, there is so much about Che that Soderbergh gets right. He has made more commercial movies, those capable of generating impressive box office numbers, but none compare to the storytelling and artistic verve of Che.
Cast: Benicio Del Toro, Catalina Sandino, Franka Potente, Rodrigo Santoro and Demián Bichir
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Screenwriter: Peter Buchman
Producers: Steven Soderbergh, Benicio Del Toro and Laura Bickford
Rating: PG-13 for violence and war action
Running time: 262 min.
Release date: December TBD