Friday, 2 January 2009

che part one (d. soderbergh, w. buchman)

Looking for clues as to what forms Soderbergh's take on the great Ernesto debate, it's worth noting that he uses Silvio Rodriguez over his credits, and credits Jon Lee Anderson as a consultant. Rodriguez, as most Latin Americans and very few Westerners are aware, became the troubadour of the Cuban revolution, albeit some years later, with his poetic chansons of occasionally mystical struggle (you're likely to find references to both Brecht and Unicorns in his songs). Rodriguez's presence adds authenticity, if any were needed, and shows a director making sure he's crossing his T's and dotting his I's. Anderson is a distinguished correspondent who's written one of the major biographies of Guevara (as well as frontline reports from Baghdad, etc): if his name's attached you assume a high level of historical accuracy is being sought. Even if history is something written by the victors.

The presence of this pair on the credits affirms Soderbergh's intention to tell the unadorned truth. None of Salles' exotic romanticism. Del Toro's Che is a doughty asthmatic. The early scenes show him coughing his way through the Cuban jungle. He's happy to play second fiddle to Fidel, (a highly mannered portrayal from Demian Bichir, suggesting he's rather overdone his research), and for the early stages of the invasion, he's relegated to doctoring and teaching duties, only being allowed near the front line as the campaign develops.

This is all in keeping with Soderbergh's mission to create a great historical epic without going all Hollywood on us. At times the approach seems reminiscent of his contemporary, Van Zandt. The film is all atmosphere and mood. Despite the occasional date being flashed up on the screen, it's unclear how long the revolution's been going and whether or not it's making any progress. The director seems almost at pains to avoid drama, as far as he can get away with it. Che breaks his arm, but we never learn how he did it. Che wanders through the Cuban backwoods, and doesn't fire at any soldiers. A skirmish begins and then the action cuts away, suddenly, without really informing the viewer what the final score was. 

Whilst it can be hard work, the approach is ultimately effective. The audience begins to get some kind of handle on what it's like to fight a guerrilla war. (Long and painstaking and occasionally dangerous). War isn't glamorous, it's hard labour. However, this is still war conducted with the benefit of hindsight: no matter how flinty the script, performances and cinematography, there's no escaping the fact they're going to win. The narrative saves its one cathartic moment of military action for the final sequence, as Guevara takes Santa Clara. One stunt, when a train leaps the rails, seems oddly out of keeping in such a low-key film, but is undoubtedly historically accurate.

The action is punctuated by moments from Guevara's address to the UN in 1964, when he's also interviewed by the clipped Julia Ormond. These scenes are filmed in a cine verite black and white, the director again flattening out the drama, the historic moment of the UN address bathed in a bureaucratic pallour. Soderbergh seems to realise that the glossiness of modern cinema isn't really equipped to capture the hard caulked realities of fighting and winning a revolution. (Perhaps it's haunted by previous takes on the subject - it's hard not to be curious how Omar Sharif played the great revolutionary in 1969 biopic, Che!, not to mention what kind of Fidel Jack Palance must have made.) The line between entertainment and historical accuracy is a hard one to tread. You kind of suspect a lot of people aren't going to possess the revolutionary stomach for the double bill, anymore than they would for yomping through jungles if the need suddenly arose. Those who do stick with it will, however, be rewarded, as the film stays with the viewer after it's ended, and its slow moving pace conceals a deceptive power. It has left me hungry to find out what Del Toro and Soderbergh, the most curiously versatile of modern US directors, have made of Part 2, more jungle, Bolivia, and the clearest narrative line possible.

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