Monday, February 15, 2016

Netflix Review: Che

    DIRECTOR Steven Soderbergh is never one to shy from a challenge, but my guess is that getting funding for Che must have been a battle in itself. Imagine the sales pitch: a four-hour, Spanish-language epic about the revolutionary exploits of Ernesto "Che" Guevara (Benicio Del Toro), shot documentary style with no concessions to "human interest".
    This film has  been divided into two separate features - The Argentine and Guerilla - each dense enough to exhaust and tire even the most dedicated viewer. Part one follows Guevara's exploits as a leader in the Cuban Revolution, while part two tackles his final, Bolivian campaign.
                                       
    Guevara arrives in Cuba as a foreigner who is yet to establish his leadership credentials. By the time he reaches Bolivia, he's a living legend whose every word and gesture carries historic weight.
    Like many of Soderbergh's thought experiments, Che is intriguing in theory, but in practice often dull. Neither a Marxist nor a defender of capitalism, the filmmaker wisely avoids any kind of political statement.Instead, he's interested in showing how guerilla warfare boils down to a series of mundane logistical problems: covering territory, sourcing food, maintaining discipline and morale. From day to day, Guevara is faced with a constant series of tactical decisions that ultimately add up to success or failure - much like any leader, even a film director.

    Most of the emotion in both films stems from Del Toro, a magnetic star who successfully controls his natural tendency to extravagance. There are,no close-ups of Che gazing nobly into the sunset.
                            
    This Guevara is relaxed yet focused, like a method actor between takes: we have to make what we can of his feline body language, his stoicism under fire, and his easy smile as he greets each of his comrades by name. All of Soderbergh's recent films set out to overturn the conventions of character psychology, and Che is no exception. The Guevara portrayed here has humour but no irony: his commitment to the revolutionary ethos leaves little room for doubt, neurosis, or private loyalties of any kind.
     While Guevara becomes an "icon" for the world at large, philosophically speaking he's committed to, sacrificing himself for a collective cause.  In the opening minutes of Guerilla, Guevara goes incognito with a shaved head and glasses, a disguise that even fools his children (who in fairness may not know him all that well). Later, as fortune turns against him in Bolivia, his beard grows shaggy while his body weakens with asthma and starvation.

    In war, he tells a faltering comrade, you have to fight as if you were already dead - and indeed he seems to be fading into the background of the frame, as if reduced to his own posthumous myth. Che is streaming now on Netflix.