You bought the T-shirt—now go see the movie.
That’s the logic Steven Soderbergh hopes will draw audiences to Che
, his four-hour, Spanish-language revolutionary epic starring Benicio Del Toro as heroic physician-turned-guerrilla Ernesto “Che” Guevara. The irony is not lost on the director. “He’s the icon of Marxist-Leninist economic ideology,” Soderbergh says during a press conference at the New York Film Festival, “and you stick his face on anything and it sells."
Old school in the term’s best sense, Che unspools more as a classic war
movie than leftist polemic. Part one, “The Argentine,” tracks the
successful jungle campaign fought by Che and a band of 80 rebels to
overthrow Cuba’s Batista regime in the late 1950s. It’s presented as a
flashback, framed by his 1964 visit to address the United Nations in
New York. Part two, “Guerilla,” follows the suicidal mission in Bolivia
that led to Che’s 1967 death. The films will be released separately,
Kill Bill-style, in Europe, but will initially roll out in America as a
vintage road show: limited engagements in New York and L.A., with
handbills and an intermission.
“It’s a lot to ask of someone to throw away an entire day,”
Soderbergh says. “But we’re making a demand on the
similar to the demands Che made on the people around him.” It took
Soderbergh seven years of research to craft Guevara’s cinematic
persona, a task that posed more than the usual biopic challenges.
“There’s a million Ches. He means something different to everyone. But
I knew what I didn’t want to do. I tried to avoid scenes that were too
typical. There is no scene where someone says, ‘Hey, why do they call
you Che?’ and then he goes and picks up his beret.”
The film does set up moments for Del Toro to deliver historic
quotes (“The true revolutionary is guided by strong feelings of love”),
but it also digs up previously undocumented anecdotes gleaned from
firsthand research. Soderbergh also
refused to turn Che into a secular
saint. The film celebrates his passion, but Soderbergh has no illusions
about Che’s tough-mindedness. “There isn’t even a place for me in the
society that Che was trying to build,” the director says. “He believed
that there was no great artist who was a revolutionary. Personally, he
would have hated me.”