Criterion Version of Steven Soderbergh's Riveting 'Che'
January 27, 2010
CHICAGO Steven Soderbergh's "Che" is one of the most underrated and
misunderstood films of the '00s. It features not only one of the best
performances of the last several years from the great Benicio Del
Toro but this challenging biopic should have been embraced by all the
critics and audience members who are constantly lamenting the lack of
filmmakers willing to take risks and provoke discussion.
With an amazing output in just three months - "Che," "The Girlfriend
Experience," and "The Informant!" - arguably the most essential
American filmmaker continues to prove that great auteurs need not
come with standard expectations. His most challenging film, the
two-part, four-hour "Che," has been inducted into the Criterion
Collection and the result is one of the best Blu-ray releases of the
last twelve months. Only the video transfer is mildly disappointing,
but that's likely un-fixable. More on that later, but everything else
about this two-disc release from the excellent, detailed special
features to the film itself makes it a must-own.
"Che" is not intended to be easily disposable entertainment.
Soderbergh and writers Peter Buchman and Benjamin A. van der Veen
don't believe that someone with as complex a life as Ernesto 'Che'
Guerava can be captured in the typically generic structure of the
biopic. And they truly do try to capture what it's like to be in the
company of Che with their daring film.
Del Toro plays Che during two of the most important parts of the
cultural icon and revolutionary leader's life. The first half of
"Che," sometimes referred to and shown as "The Argentine," detailed
Che's arrival in Cuba and the overthrow of the Batista regime with
Fidel Castro. We meet him on his way to Cuba, intercut with footage
of a speech he gave at the UN at the height of his counter-culture
fame. Che is presented as a natural leader, someone easy to get
behind and follow, something many, many men did.
The second half of the film, sometimes referred to as "Guerilla," is
the mirror image of the success and fame of the first half and
details Che's final days in Bolivia. After Castro was put in power,
Che went to Bolivia to see if lightning would strike twice with
another revolution. It didn't and he died there.
Instead of the standard biopic beats, Soderbergh is trying to
recreate the experience of actually being in the presence of one of
the most recognizable figures of the twentieth century. He
consciously avoids turning Che into a hero. In fact, it's easy to
read the two films as a commentary on the inevitable failure of what
Che believed in, Marxism. The revolution that worked in Cuba failed
miserably in Bolivia. This is not a hero's story. But it is one of
the most mesmerizing and accomplished works from one of our best directors.
And Del Toro's riveting performance drives it all. It is a remarkable
emotional and physical transformation that easily carries the weight
of Soderbergh's daring and complex film on its shoulders.
When it was released in Chicago theaters a year ago, I expected
arthouse audiences, the ones who always complain to me about the lack
of challenging fare at the theater to give it a chance. Sadly, the
very expensive film was largely ignored, making less than $2 million
at the worldwide box office. I still think "Che" will grow in esteem
over the next few years (although the YEAR between theatrical and DVD
was a mistake). This is a movie that demands discussion and those
that see it will fuel that conversation with word of mouth. Those can
be hard films to find an audience at first (especially when it takes
a whole day in theaters) but often connect on the home market.
It helps that the film has been inducted into The Criterion
Collection, although a little controversy over their deal with IFC
Films that allowed many of the studio's recent output to bear the
best name in DVD production has sullied the inclusion a little bit.
Hopefully, that won't allow people to miss this incredible box set,
complete with Criterion's perfect selection of special features.
As for the technical specs, the video transfer has been approved by
Soderbergh, but I'm not sure the RED camera work is the best for HD.
The interior scenes look flatter than Blu-ray buyers might expect.
Just know that it has more to do with Soderbergh's love affair with
his new camera and not the actual transfer. And the exterior shots
Special features include a commentary on both films by Jon Lee
Anderson, author of "Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life," the great
documentary "Making Che," deleted scenes, theatrical trailer,
interviews with participants in and historians of the Cuban
Revolution and Che's Bolivian campaign, "End of a Revolution," "Che
and the Digital Cinema Revolution!," and a booklet featuring an essay
by critic Amy Taubin.
'Che' is released by The Criterion Collection and stars Benicio Del
Toro, Demian Bichir, Rodrigo Santoro, Franka Potente, and Catalina
Sandino Moreno. It was written by Peter Buchman and Benjamin A. van
der Veen and directed by Steven Soderbergh. It was released on
Blu-ray and DVD on January 19th, 2010. It is not rated.