How much can you expect from half a film? A question I asked myself before seeing Steven Soderbergh’s Che: Part One (also called The Argentine), which opens a few weeks ahead of Che: Part Two (aka The Guerilla). Now, Che played as a single 4+ hour epic at Cannes and in brief runs in NYC and LA, but has been otherwise split up for global distribution (most likely cause: the studio wants to double their profits.)
There haven’t been too many other cases of this (ignoring Grindhouse‘s global distribution, because that really was two films, and Kill Bill, because that certainly felt like two different films); off the top of my head I’d name Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible and Mizoguchi’s The 47 Ronin. And without even having seen Part Two, I’d be tempted to make the claim that Soderbergh’s Che can stand alongside those two classics.
That’s how good Part One is. First of all, it’s an incredible portrait of a worldwide icon. Che is depicted as a blank slate here, no backstory, no inner conflict or motivation, played by Benicio Del Toro not as a character but as an image. To put it another way: there aren’t many more controversial figures out there, and your individual politics may tell you Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara was a hero or a butcher.
You will leave Che: Part One, feeling the same exact way. Del Toro is Che (they say that a lot, don’t they? But it’s never been this fully realized), there is no acting done, the audience has no emotional investment in the character. Not what everyone wants or expects from a piece cinema, but brilliantly realized by Soderbergh and the only way this film could be done. Objective reporting the likes of which you will not find on the nightly news.
Second, Che: Part One is incredible filmmaking. The first hour is filled with so many characters that the audience spends a good amount of time playing catch-up. Once we do it’s absolutely breathtaking.
I’m speaking specifically about the extended, 40-minute climax that deals with revolutionary forces led by Che taking a key Cuban town: it’s the most compelling depiction of wartime strategy I’ve seen since Patton, and the finest directorial work Soderbergh has ever done.
The main thrust of Part One involves the 1956-59 years, as Fidel Castro and a group of Cuban exiles recruit Che’s support for their planned invasion of Cuba, train soldiers, and eventually topple over Batista’s government. This is intercut with Che’s 1964 journey to New York, where he confronted the United Nations.
But Che: Part One is a film to be seen, not so much described. I urge any film lover to watch and savor it.