Charging across the globe like an insurrectionist guerrilla cadre, Steven Soderbergh's sprawling, Spanish-language epic "Che" has been playing at international film festivals and leaving controversy in its wake. The film depicts Argentine doctor turned international revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara ( Benicio Del Toro) as a hard-nosed idealist, a dreamer with military discipline.
Both in its contentious content -- Guevara is a hero to some and a scoundrel to others -- and its demanding form, the film is a direct challenge to audiences. Depending on who you ask, "Che" is either Soderbergh's greatest masterwork or his grandest folly.
"I hoped that there would be discussion," said Soderbergh of the divisive response the film has received. "If you've made something that doesn't get people going in one direction or another, then you've probably made a mistake.
"It's not a typical biographical film. That's not what I was interested in making. I knew the approach was going to be one that some people would really take to and some people would be angered by. And that's fine."
Saturday, the film will make its sold-out Los Angeles premiere at the historic Grauman's Chinese Theatre as part of this year's AFI Fest, screening in what is being referred to as the "roadshow" version, one film with a four-hours-plus running time and an intermission break. It is this version that will be submitted for awards consideration and will play L.A. and New York for a one-week run in December. In January, "Che" will be released to theaters as two separate films, "Che Part 1: The Argentine" and "Che Part 2: Guerrilla," and be made available for video-on-demand service.
"The Argentine" includes Guevara meeting Fidel Castro and the Cuban Revolution of 1956-59, which saw Guevara's rise from medic to fighter to leader as he helped to overthrow the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. It also includes Guevara's 1964 visit to New York City to make a speech at the United Nations as a representative of the new regime. "Guerrilla" follows Guevara's 11-month attempt to export the Cuban revolutionary model to Bolivia, a campaign that ended with his capture and execution in 1967.
More than a T-shirt
Due in part to the enduring popularity of Alberto Korda's 1960 photo of Guevara, his image is well known, but his story less so. His transformation into a free-floating signifier of romanticized revolutionary chic made the task of capturing the essence of Guevara's life that much more challenging.
"I think a lot of people know the T-shirt but don't really know that many facts about Che," said Peter Buchman, screenwriter on both films (sharing credit with Benjamin A. van der Veen on "Guerrilla").
Che's image-issue is addressed toward the end of the film, when he is asked by a reporter how it feels to be a symbol. "A symbol of what?" comes his response.
"I knew a little about who he was and I had no idea how his life ended," Soderbergh said of the original intention to tell only the story of Guevara's fatal expedition in Bolivia. "For most people, that's question No. 1. It felt very much like a John Huston movie, that story had a very quixotic aspect to it. The problem was this thing just kept expanding, like 'The Sorcerer's Apprentice,' it kept getting bigger and bigger. We tried to make it one giant script and it was unreadable. And I thought, 'Let's just break the thing in half.' "
Del Toro -- who won the actor prize following the film's premiere at the Cannes Film Festival -- describes Guevara as "a weird combination of intellect and action, like Gregory Peck meets Steve McQueen," and his portrayal is of a man enigmatically committed to a rigorous set of ideals. The film has nevertheless received criticism for leaving out "movie moments" and the sort of definitive psychological keys -- a past trauma, an unfulfilled wish -- used in many biographical films.
"I was making a mental list of all the things I didn't want to do," Soderbergh said. "I didn't want to have the scene where the guy goes, 'Why do they call you Che?' Or his hat flies off in a battle and somebody offers him a beret. I just didn't want to do that stuff."
In the months since "Che" screened at Cannes, it has been criticized for leaving out other less flattering parts of Guevara's history, including the post-revolutionary period in Cuba, in which his administrative power included overseeing war tribunals that led to the executions of hundreds of people. It is, without question, the period of Guevara's life that most complicates the simplistic depiction of him as a poetic freedom fighter, and Soderbergh acknowledges the controversial omission has become an easy way to dismiss the film.
"The most virulent anti-Che people usually focus on the events in the immediate aftermath of the revolution," Soderbergh said, "and that was something I addressed through his U.N. speech, but I was never interested in doing that part of his life as a bureaucrat. I'm sure some people will say, 'That's convenient because that's when he was at his worst.' Yeah, maybe -- it just wasn't interesting to me. I was interested in making a procedural about guerrilla warfare."
A hard sell in U.S.
The offscreen saga of "Che" has been nearly as much a battleground as what's shown on screen. The film, made for just under $60 million, was financed by the French production and sales company the Wild Bunch, with some additional funds from the Spanish company Telecinco.
"A lot of people think the reason the movie didn't have any U.S. financing was because it was about Che Guevara," said producer Laura Bickford, "and that's not the case. Nobody cared about the politics.
"When the movie was in English and one movie, everybody wanted to do it. When we went to Spanish and two movies, the studios' pay-TV deals are for English-language product only. So the pay-TV money disappeared and, at that point, nobody wanted to step up."
Despite the fact that many specialized film companies have recently fallen by the wayside, this four-hour, two-part, Spanish-language biopic about a controversial revolutionary leader was ultimately able to find a U.S. distributor. Jonathan Sehring, president of IFC Entertainment, says he is "over the moon" to be releasing the film, likening "Che" to such epics as "Lawrence of Arabia" and "Spartacus." "There are a lot of shortsighted film executives out there who are afraid of the scope of the project."
While the most obvious solution to the film's distribution and exhibition situation might have been to simply edit it down into a single film, doing so would lose some of the film's key structural conceits. "I don't feel like you can have the kind of dialogue between the two films," Soderbergh said of editing it down to one movie, "that's sort of the whole point. They literally are mirrors of each other."
The "Che" project has lingered with Soderbergh, even though he has already moved on to other projects, in ways he finds difficult to articulate. Even while conceiving "Che," something about the idealistic, revolutionary subject matter sparked within him.
"I felt like we had to do something as crazy as they did," Soderbergh said.
Olsen is a freelance writer and critic.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun