Cannes 2008 Reactions: Che (Guerilla / The Argentine)

Steven Soderbergh’s ambitious two film project about Che Guevera screened at Cannes last night as Guerilla and The Argentine were shown back-to-back in competition.

Would critics get cranky at sitting through 4 hours and 18 minutes of Che or could we see a repeat of 1989 when a young Soderbergh scooped the Palme d’Or for Sex, Lies and Videotape?

Just a quick note about the film – I doubt very much that it will be commercially released as a four hour double bill. Surely two separate movies released within a reasonable time frame is what’s going to happen.

Here is a summary of what the critics thought:

Todd McCarthy of Variety calls it ‘intricately ambitious’ but ‘defiantly nondramatic’:

No doubt it will be back to the drawings board for ‘Che’, Steven Soderbergh’s intricately ambitious, defiantly nondramatic four-hour, 18-minute presentation of scenes from the life of revolutionary icon Che Guevara.

If the director has gone out of his way to avoid the usual Hollywood biopic conventions, he has also withheld any suggestion of why the charismatic doctor, fighter, diplomat, diarist and intellectual theorist became and remains such a legendary figure; if anything, Che seems diminished by the way he’s portrayed here.

Neither half feels remotely like a satisfying stand-alone film, while the whole offers far too many aggravations for its paltry rewards.

Scattered partisans are likely to step forward, but the pic in its current form is a commercial impossibility.

Jeffrey Wells of Hollywood Elsewhere thinks differently, calling the two films ‘incandescent’ and ‘gripping’ :

The first half of Steven Soderbergh’s 268-minute Che Guevara epic is, for me, incandescent -a piece of full-on, you-are-there realism about the making of the Cuban revolution that I found utterly believable.

Not just “take it to the bank” gripping, but levitational – for someone like myself it’s a kind of perfect dream movie.

The second half of Che, also known as Guerilla, just got out about a half-hour ago, and equally delighted although it’s a different kind of film — tighter, darker (naturally, given the story). But I’ve been arguing with some colleagues who don’t like either film at all, or don’t think it’s commercial.

What does it say about people who see a film like this and go “meh” ? You can’t watch a live-wire film like Che and say “give me more.” It is what it is, and it gives you plenty. Take no notice of anyone who says it doesn’t.

James Rocchi of Cinematical is also a big fan, calling the two films ‘a rare pleasure’:

There will be arguments about the politics of the films; there will be discussions of whether or not the films have any emotional center; there will be questions of if, when the film gets some kind of U.S. distribution deal, exactly how they should be released — two films released staggered throughout the last half of the year or cut down to one three-hour film or shown as a long, big double bill that presents the separate films back-to-back.

I can’t predict how all of these questions and possibilities will play out, but I can say — and will say — what a rare pleasure it is to have a film (or films) that, in our box-office obsessed, event-movie, Oscar-craving age, is actually worth talking about on so many levels.

Allan Hunter of Screen Daily salutes an ‘absorbing, thoughtful marathon’:

It is hard to imagine another American director of his generation with the clout or all-round ability to pull off a two film, five hour portrait of revolutionary icon Ernesto Che Guevara.

His measured approach eschews grand, crowd-pleasing gestures or any temptation to adopt the sweep of a David Lean-style epic.

Instead, he has created an absorbing, thoughtful marathon in which the focus is firmly on the personalities and the political arguments that forged the revolutionary ideals of the 1950s and 1960s.

Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian says it is ‘virile, muscular film-making’:

The Cannes film festival now has a serious contender for the Palme d’or. Steven Soderbergh’s four-and-a-half hour epic Che, about the revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara, was virile, muscular film-making, with an effortlessly charismatic performance by Benicio del Toro in the lead role.

…Che was gigantic without being precisely monumental.

It is such big, bold, ambitious film-making: and yet I was baffled that Soderbergh fought shy of so many important things in Che’s personal life.

Of course, it could be that he avoided them to avoid vulgar speculation, and felt that the two spectacles of revolution incarnate were more compelling: a secular Passion play.

Whatever the reason, Che is never boring and often gripping.

Anne Thompson of Variety admires parts of the film(s) but questions Soderbergh’s decision to screen it at Cannes in it’s current form:

Benecio del Toro gives a great performance, but Soderbergh’s roving HD camera keeps its distance as Che trains guerillas in the jungle, leads his troops through various skirmishes and the takeover of Santa Clara, talks to TV interviewers and gives moving speeches at the U.N.

The movie is well made and watchable.

Soderbergh didn’t think he could finish the film in time for Cannes. Why don’t these guys ever learn? Remember Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales, Wong Kar Wai’s 2046, Vincent Gallo’s The Brown Bunny, and Edward Norton-starrer Down in the Valley?

DON’T TAKE AN UNFINISHED MOVIE TO CANNES!!!! Wait. Give the film the time you need.

The good news: there is plenty of fine material here to be edited into one releasable long dramatic feature and hopefully French producer/sales co. Wild Bunch, which paid for 75 % of the $61 million film, and Telecinco, which came up with 25%, will give the filmmaker the time he needs to find this promising film’s final form.

Jonathan Dean of Total Film says it is ‘superb’:

Che is superb, pretty much a masterpiece, by far Soderbergh’s best film, definitely the greatest of the festival so far and, incredibly, a film that despite being the best part of five hours, leaves you wanting much more.

Yeah. It is that good.

Pete Hammond writing for the LA Times says Del Toro ‘completely inhabits the role’ of Che:

Del Toro completely inhabits the role as you might expect. He was born to play Che.

But immediately afterward one distributor proudly related that he stayed awake thru the whole thing but told us it’s a very tough sell at that price.

‘Che’, if it indeed remains split into two parts, is a true marketing challenge for whoever picks up domestic rights and most of the buyers were there last night to check it out for the first time.

Award season chances clearly depend on critical reaction and how it is presented. Best shot would be for Del Toro who might stand a chance in the actor race depending on which of the two films they push. Overall at this juncture it could be a tough academy sell but the film itself may still be a work-in-progress.

Glenn Kenny of indieWIRE appears to be praises it’s ‘detachment’ and ‘intellectual curiosity’:

Che benefits greatly from certain Soderberghian qualities that don’t always serve his other films well, e.g., detachment, formalism, and intellectual curiosity.

Benicio del Toro, despite being ten real years older than anybody playing the part in any period should be, …works almost demonically at making Che’s appeal palpable. But his performance is just a remarkable cog in Soderbergh’s meticulous examination of process.

…critics of my acquaintance were arguing its merits and faults on the side streets of Cannes even as I dragged myself off to my residence here to write this up.

The film does not yet have a UK or US release date.

> Official link to the film at the Cannes festival site
> Watch the press conference with Steven Soderbergh and Benicio del Toro
> Find out more about Guerilla and The Argentine at Wikipedia