05 October 2008

NYFF #3: Che

Possibly the most anticipated film of this year's New York Film Festival, Steven Soderbergh's Che gets its sole screening on Tuesday night. The film premiered at Cannes to a fair amount of controversy, largely centered on the film's alleged "omissions" of some of the less flattering episodes of Ernesto Guevara's life. Owing to an odd critical predilection for writing about what's on the screen rather than what isn't, as well as the belief that an artist is entitled to his/her own choice of subject, I'll leave such matters to others.

As for the entirely legitimate question of whether Che glamorizes Guevara, my answer would be a qualified no. Soderbergh's whole approach is based on a studied objectivity. Clocking in at 262 minutes, divided exactly in half by an intermission, Che may be the most plot-driven biopic ever made. The pace of this relentlessly forward-driving film (which certainly doesn't feel like four-and-a-half hours) remains brisk throughout, with a lot of short scenes and almost no time spent ruminating over character psychology. The film makes no explicit effort to valorize or condemn anything onscreen, but merely presents its version of what happened, mostly with as little expressionist fanfare as possible. (The film's first half, devoted to the years preceding the Cuban Revolution of 1959, jived with my scant knowledge of the period, although I'll have to plead ignorance on the second half, set in the wilds of Bolivia in the final year of Guevara's life.)

In its unaccented neutrality, Che is a fitting tribute to a Marxist revolutionary: collective struggle easily trumps individual heroism throughout. This conceptual coherence lifts the movie far above something like Walter Salles's 2004 film The Motorcycle Diaries, which Jessica Winter aptly described as "a well-meaning but ostentatious display of solidarity with a vaguely defined ideal, not entirely unlike making the scene in your Che Guevara tank top."

Che avoids most of the obvious semiotic pitfalls, but only at the expense of refusing to define Guevara entirely, other than as the personification of collective struggle. The rich color palette and exquisitely unobtrusive framings make Che an attractive film to look at, but its superficial beauty eventually makes for an alienating experience. (This is perhaps the whole point.) The first half is sprinkled with black-and-white scenes from a 1964 trip to New York, mostly covering Guevara's appearance representing Cuba at the United Nations and an interview by a female journalist. But this too seems deliberately off-putting, more an excuse for Soderbergh to whip up some '60s-style cinema vérité than to provide any meaningful political or psychological insight into his subject. In a sense, the movie's not really a biopic at all; Che basically remains an icon, albeit one put back into historical context. It is a supremely withholding film. Nearly a week after seeing it, I can't decide if it was empty or brilliant.