Steven Soderbergh‘s 4+ hour epic, Che, is more notable for what it’s
NOT about than for what it is. It’s not about a South American military
leader or a cultural icon or the international symbol of revolution.
It’s about a doctor with asthma in the jungle.
Soderbergh rejects most notions of character development. Benicio Del
Toro‘s stalwart poet of a character is in nearly every scene and we are
told virtually nothing about him. He is from Argentina. He is trained
as a doctor. He has terrible asthma. We are given these three bits of
biographical trivia very early on, and we’re left to roam the jungle
chewing on them for the rest of the film. This, I admire. (There’s
little sense in a film director trying to rewrite a history with so
many notes in the margins that it looks like a bad high school essay.)
Del Toro’s weathered face, tall crooked frame, and South American
revolutionary facial hair, are all we need to make sense of what’s at
stake. Impromptu meetings with Fidel Castro in rural Cuba and lots of
shaking hands define Che as a man with unwavering honor, compassion,
tacit charisma, and and an uncanny ability to remember people’s names.
His visionary leadership brings him to the upper echelon of Cuban
politics, and his near-fanatical loyalty to the cause brings him all
the way back. His only questionable tactic was trying to do too much
As much as this may resemble the story of an epic movie, Soderbergh
goes through great pains to numb this notion. Both film segments are
shot predominantly in jungles and rural landscapes. There are always
walls in the frame–walls in the forms of jigsawing tree trunks, leaves
blotting the sky, and eclipsing hills in the too-near distance. The one
expansive, and probably best, visual shot of the movie shows cars
winding around a cliff road against a sky bleeding fog. Here, the walls
are a cliff not even worthy of being scaled by one of the expendables
and a 1,000 foot drop-off that one momentary lapse of focus would make
the killer of a nameless guerilla convoy.
Che’s deliberately imposed parameters make for its biggest downfall and
its biggest achievement. The problem with the movie is that for all the
time it spends not telling you anything, by the end you have to wonder
why it took so long not to tell you anything. At the same time, this
may be the beginning of a new genre of film: the little epic.
Soderbergh shoots a very beautiful, surprisingly subtle movie, and
that is no small feat.