Che: Part One - DVD Review

'we are stuck in closeted, dirty camps with a bunch of hungry and tired revolutionaries, surrounded by a hostile enemy and an unsure populace, under a leafed canopy. This isn't a relaxing holiday trip. Welcome to the jungle'

Steven Soderbergh (acting under his cinematographer alias of Peter Andrews) makes a brave decision during the photography of Che: Part One. Surrounded by beautiful Cuban countryside and forestry (actually Mexican countryside and forestry), the temptation was probably there to shoot numerous high-def sweeping vista shots across swathes of land that Che Guevara and his band of revolutionaries must cover. Instead Soderbergh does the opposite, confining us to the jungle floor. The effect of Soderbergh's photography is tangible and representative of the film as a whole; this isn't an expansive overview, we are in this fight. We are stuck in closeted, dirty camps with a bunch of hungry and tired revolutionaries, surrounded by a hostile enemy and an unsure populace, under a leafed canopy. This isn't a relaxing holiday trip. Welcome to the jungle.

For historical, chronologically friendly completists, it's quite easy to picture Che starting somewhere just after the end of Walter Salles' The Motorcycle Diaries. Guevara (Benicio Del Toro) has now become involved with an upwardly mobile group of political activists led by Fidel Castro (Demián Bichir) who are plotting to overthrow the Cuban government by way of a prolonged and armed revolutionary campaign. When that campaign starts, Guevara takes charge of one of the units himself, leading a front that aims to reach Havana by way of one of the last town strongholds of the existing government. Che soon finds himself leaving his medical routes behind as he seeks to inspire and manage the ever-increasing fighters towards their goal.

Soderbergh's photography isn't the only grubby and earthy thing about Che, everything here feels like it could do with a number of runs through the washing machine. That isn't a bad thing. The rag-tag band of revolutionary fighters, compete and preen, loaded with bravado and ambition, but give them a multi-mile hike over treacherous terrain and soon they are sweating jungle bums, begging for the chance for a break or, in some cases, going so far as to desert the cause. The early parts of Che are its strongest as Guevara, on his own emotional journey, must somehow find a way to pull his section together, despite his Argentinian routes, troubling asthmatic condition and lack of resolute authority. Of course, he wins through with a mixture of inspirational rhetoric, tough justice and an idealised moral compass. As a biopic (with all the problems that brings) Che is a success and Del Toro's hunched portrayal of a coughing and weak, but nonetheless, intelligent and commanding Guevara is convincing if not perfect (his penchant for incoherent mumbling will still irk those it has irked in the past).

For all the film's gritty 'realism' though, Soderbergh can be accused of living life in a bubble. His revolutionaries seem to do no wrong and any unforgivable actions in the film (rape, leaving troops to die, bombing civilians) are all attributed to the government forces or individuals who have long since been dispatched from the revolutionary corps. This may well have been the case (I'm not going to question his grip on the history which is surely better than mine) but whilst all the characters carrying out these acts are summarily judged, Soderbergh never does the same for the revolutionaries who, lets not forget, killed hundreds of government forces on their way to seizing power, all of whom I'm sure had families and children to go home to. It's fairly clear that Soderbergh wore one of those Che t-shirts in his formative days.

You could also easily argue that the extended sections looking into the future of when the film is set feel like they could have warranted a film in their own right. Case in particular point here is Che's appearance at the United Nations which carries with it overtly dramatic political machinations. This again, isn't necessarily a criticism of the film, more a wish that Soderbergh had just been a little tighter in his decision making or ambitious in his epic designs, turning this into a trilogy rather than a two-parter. As it is though, it is fine fine film making, calling into memory Traffic rather than any one of the Oceans when compared to the rest of Soderbergh's canon. Like a lot of biography, this is love letter rather than analysis which causes multiple questions and problems but thankfully, few related to its quality.

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'what could have been a rose tinted hymnal or self important political lesson is instead a gripping observation' - Cinema Scream

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