Che: Part I opens Friday in select theaters
Che is director Steven Soderbergh's four-hour formal masterwork about the iconic revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara. Che: Part I is the first half of Soderbergh's stunner, which will be released on its own in Triangle theaters this Friday. Part II will follow, possibly as soon as next week.
Looking back at the sparse notes I made when I saw Che in its entirety in December, I read, "Why is intermission so long?" I was so excited by the stride the movie had hit at the midway point that I wanted to dive immediately into Part II. After getting impatient with a 20-minute break, I am disheartened that Triangle viewers will have to wait at least a week between halves.
But seeing Che: Part I for the purposes of this review last night, I was surprised at how fulfilling I found it on its own. I feared that the film's end would feel abrupt and dissatisfying without the promise of another half to follow. And while it does seem truncated, Part I works quite well as a stand-alone film, and—without giving anything away—I felt more startled than short-changed at the way the final scene plays when seeing it this way. I have a responsibility here to say that in the four-hour version, I was more partial to the second half, but I fear that it won't fare nearly as well as Part I does by itself.
One of the reasons that Part I works as a self-contained film is that it has enough styles and settings for three movies. In the first 10 minutes alone, the film takes us to New York City in 1965, the backwoods of Cuba in 1957 and Mexico City in 1955. Mexico City, where Che first meets Fidel Castro, has a grainy, 16 mm look; New York City is in black and white; and all of the Cuba locations are in vivid, crisp living color.
For all the ideas and places covered in the opening scenes and throughout the film, the pace is always moderate. By the end of Part I, as Che and his rebels go into heavy battle, the rhythm remains as steady and deliberate as it was when they were hiking through the woods, giving the fight scenes the trippy feel of listening to a record that you think might be playing just below the standard 33 1/3 rpm.
This dreamy quality dominates Part I, and when I tried to be sure about exactly what was happening and where, it got confusing. There's a lot of dialogue about starting new fronts in different parts of Cuba before taking Havana and the creation and reassignment of revolutionary columns; the strategy is never very clear. The details of how this revolution works remain a mystery: A truckload of weapons arrives at a guerilla encampment, but from where? When did they relocate to this camp? Where in Cuba are we?
These unanswered questions aren't spawned from any shortcomings of Soderbergh's structure; in fact, he might be willfully confusing his audience. In a playful joke, the titles occasionally position the scene by saying no more than it is so many hundreds of miles away from Havana—but are they even on their way to Havana? After a while, all of the conversations about strategy between Che, the soldiers, Castro and the American interviewer play more like an ambient soundtrack than a map to the movie's narrative. The intermittent titles locating the scenes in time and place start to look like the subversively arbitrary intertitles in the surrealist Un Chien Andalou.
Watching Che: Part I as a work of abstraction is where you meet its brilliance: wild-haired men literally busting through the buildings' Easter egg-colored walls; as the sun sets, two magic-hour meetings in which Batista's military men seem transfixed by the charisma of their opponent; a long-bearded soldier (the humorous and attractive actor Santiago Cabrera) casually carrying his jacket on the end of his rifle. During the pastel battle in Santa Clara, I thought of the most abstract paintings of Willem de Kooning: streaks, smears, rectangles, and drips of pink, yellow, white and blue—it's ironic, given Guevara's opposition to the U.S., that a painting titled July 4th comes to mind.
Any political statement that a $60 million capitalist enterprise might make about a communist revolutionary is irrelevant by its nature. (Soderbergh would probably agree. In a recent Esquire interview, he was assertive about his opinion that what he does as a filmmaker is unimportant.) But the flickering images on the screen, the texture-rich world in which the film is submerged, and the relationships of space and time as mapped out by a capable craftsman and adventurous artist like Soderbergh—these are things actually worth caring about. The film is hypnotic and inky; it makes such appealing use of every kind of light that form and color are more its subjects than revolutionary politics or the treatment of an icon. I could probably enjoy Part I just as much—that is, immensely—even without the subtitles.