Review by Gordon Justesen
Stars: Benicio Del Toro, Demian
Bichir, Julia Ormond, Carlos Bardem, Victor Rasuk, Rodrigo Santoro, Santiago
Cabrera, Vladimir Cruz, Alfredo de Quesada, Catalina Sandino Moreno
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Audio: DTS HD 5.1
Video: (Part One) Anamorphic Widescreen 2.39:1, (Part Two) Anamorphic Widescreen 1.78:1
Features: See Review
Length: 261 Minutes
Release Date: January 19, 2010
“To survive here, to win... you have to live as if you've already died.”
Few filmmakers continue to impress me the way Steven Soderbergh does. Ever since his sex, lies & videotape broke new ground for independent filmmaking nearly 21 years ago, the guy has never stopped working. Not only that, but he has also never stopped challenging himself as a director.
With the exception of Gus Van Sant, no other filmmaker has been able to diversify between mainstream films, independent releases and flat out experimental projects. While not every endeavor may be a successful one (Full Frontal continues to bewilder me, Schizopolis left me a little bit cold and Erin Brockovich was vastly overrated), Soderbergh possesses one of the most solid resumes of any living filmmaker. In addition to his aforementioned debut film, Out of Sight, The Limey, Traffic, Solaris, Ocean’s Eleven, Ocean’s Twelve, Ocean’s Thirteen and The Informant are all films that I truly cherish
Every filmmaker that possesses longevity will eventually make the film that he or she has been building their entire career towards. For Soderbergh that film is Che, his precisely detailed and extremely intimate biopic about perhaps the most controversial historic figure of the 1960s, Ernesto Che Guevara. It is without question Soderbergh’s most daring film to date, and quite simply one of his best cinematic accomplishments.
If a film about Che Guevara ever got made, the only filmmaker I could’ve imagined making it was Oliver Stone, simply because it would make sense. So when I first heard that Soderbergh was going to be bringing Che’s life to film, I was surprised to say the least. Then when I learned that the film was going to be four hours long, I was more surprised and also a bit worried. I wasn’t sure if even a filmmaker I respect as much as Soderbergh could keep me glued to a seat for that long.
But he eventually made the wise decision to split the film into two parts, even though it was presented in its entirety during a brief “road show” presentation in order for Oscar consideration. Soderbergh even went the extra mile in distinguishing the two parts by shooting Part One in the 2.39:1 scope ratio, and shooting Part Two in the 1.78:1 flat ratio. In other words, we can add “innovator” to Mr. Soderbergh’s increasingly fantastic resume.
In spite of my never-ending praise of Soderbergh’s astonishing filmmaking, which may just be his best display yet, the essential ingredient of the film’s potency is the performance of Benicio Del Toro in the title role. When I heard he was going to be playing Che Guevara, I knew it was going to be a monumental performance before I saw any footage, as it would be impossible to imagine any other actor in the role. And sure enough, Del Toro fully immerses himself into the role, and it flat out stuns me that the performance wasn’t even rewarded with that of an Oscar nomination.
Of the film’s separated sections, it is Part One that is unquestionably the better of the two. The events chronicled here are told quite powerfully and are paced in a most terrifically by way of a nonlinear narrative applied Soderbergh and screenwriter Peter Buchman. This is also the first feature film to be shot in the RED camera, a new superior filmmaking source through which Soderbergh incorporates a brilliant, diverse mixture of visual aesthetics in his covering of the events throughout Che’s life, the most effective of which is the high contrast black and white photography used in depicting his 1964 visit to the United Nations in New York.
That event, in addition to a crucial interview with American journalist Lisa Howard (Julia Ormond), is sporadically intercut with the other the main event chronicled in Part One; the Cuban revolution. From his very first encounter with Castro in Mexico City right down to the crucial battle in Santa Clara, the details of these events are accounted in a most riveting way. In addition, we catch a glimpse into the soul of the man, a humble military man who encouraged his men to read and was in favor of morally sound ethics towards both subordinates and peers.
Part Two is just a little bit inferior, but that’s only by comparison to the mesmerizing way Part One juggled so many events. There is only one event detailed in this section, which takes place six years following the Cuban revolution. This detail’s Che’s failed attempt to lead a revolution in Bolivia, which was cut short by the Bolivian army, working with American advisers, who captured and quickly executed him.
Because this prolonged and ultimately doomed event is rich in detail, Part Two does drag on rather mercilessly. But I honestly think that’s the point Soderbergh was trying to make. Part One showed the Cuban revolution as something of a swift and efficiently executed plan that resulted in nothing but success for Che, and by contrast the attempt in Bolivia was the exact polar opposite as it illustrates a painfully slow period of time where virtually nothing but ultimate loss was achieved.
So even though the first part towers over the second, as a combined film experience Che is tremendously riveting. Blending Soderbergh’s epic scale side with his experimental side, it is perhaps the most unconventional biopic to ever get made. The grand filmmaking and Benicio Del Toro’s career-defining performance make this masterful piece of work a can’t miss affair for Soderbergh fans and art-house enthusiasts everywhere.
BONUS: Look briefly and you will spot both Matt Damon and Lou Diamond Phillips in blink-and-you-will-miss-them cameos.
Films like Che are why Criterion exists in the first place. Even if they weren’t handling the majority of releases from IFC Films, having a different studio oversee this transfer (especially for Blu-ray) would not result in a presentation so flat out remarkable. And for this Blu-ray release, they have provided one of their most brilliant transfers to date. Soderbergh’s use of multiple color palates benefit greatly in the 1080p, and even the intended grain in some sequences (particularly in the black and white sequences) is presented terrifically. The overall detail is flat out uncanny, most notably during scenes set in the jungles of South America (which come complete with astonishingly lush greens). Every visual aesthetic is presented in its most knockout form, and Criterion’s presentation will go down as one of the year’s very best!
Talk about a sound mix full of surprises. I had a feeling that the DTS HD mix was going to impress me quite a bit, being that it’s Criterion, but I just didn’t expect the film to give it so much to work with. The jungle settings are brought to life with such sheer authenticity, you’ll swear that you are right there amongst the guerillas. And though gunshots are sparse throughout the film, the sound is equivalent to firecrackers going off in your living room! The dialogue (which is mostly in Spanish) is delivered as clear and as flawless as can be. Another illustration of pure Criterion excellence.
First off, let me just say that as far as packaging goes, Criterion’s Blu-ray release is one for the history books. The package, which includes two individual cased discs for both parts, is the true epitome of a collector’s item. And both discs come with their own individual extras, although unfortunately we are not treated to a Steven Soderbergh commentary, which I always look forward to. Both discs contain a commentary track featuring Jon Lee Anderson, the author of the book “Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life”, which is as deeply informative as you would expect it to be. On Part One, there’s a fascinating documentary titled “Making Che”, which features interviews with Soderbergh, Del Toro, producer Laura Bickford, and writers Peter Buchman and Ben van der Veen. Rounding out the first disc are Deleted Scenes and a Theatrical Trailer.
For Part Two, we have more Deleted Scenes, as well as interviews with actual participants in and historians of both the Cuban Revolution and the Bolivian campaign. There’s also “End of a Revolution”, a documentary made in Bolivia right after Che’s execution in 1967 , and “Che and the Digital Cinema Revolution”, which offers a fascinating look at the RED camera and the mark it’s making on contemporary cinema. Lastly, we have a Theatrical Trailer, as well as a fantastic booklet which features an essay by critic Amy Taubin.
Chances are that by acknowledging the filmmaker, the subject, and the running time, you already know if Che is or isn’t the film for you. But if you are a true cinephile who is building a massive Blu-ray collection, you absolutely MUST add this remarkable Criterion package to your collection ASAP! And apart from that, the movie is a unique work of art from the one of a kind Mr. Soderbergh and is one hell of a Blu-ray presentation!