Friday, January 9, 2009

Movies: Che

It’s little surprise that Cuba—a country much more glamorous than Bolivia—gets the full Hollywood treatment by super-savvy Soderbergh in Che Part One, leaving landlocked Bolivia, the unbeating heart of Central America, to the gritty, guerrilla styling of handheld in Part Two. The aesthetic difference between the two halves is startling; though an untrained eye might not notice the taller frame of the second, one does notice a zooming in and down: many more scenes on or near the ground, and many more shots of bodies than vistas. The Cuba film alternates between that country's warm tones and a lusciously grained black and white, which describes Che's 1964 visit to the United Nations in New York; the constantly-shifting timeline is anchored by elegantly bold titles. The Bolivia film, though, is relentless; the frame is crowded with bodies pushing through vegetation; we almost never leave the training camp, except on marches that offer more of the same. The few splashes of color come from a hostile barrio, filthy and faded, where twenty townspeople crowd into their tiny mountaintop church and listen to Che lecture on the importance of health care. There are no open shots of the sea, no red sports cars, no filmy cigar smoke. There is a disobedient donkey, a child with a maggot in its eye, and a hirsute and wasted Che, wheezing in a brown poncho. Dialogue is exchanged for gunshots. Inspiration is exchanged for pleading.

While this difference renders the Bolivian film an almost insufferable punishment, that treatment is completely valid and appropriate. The Bolivian people didn't have half the love for Che that the Cubans did; they didn't trust him and they wouldn't join him. Che in Bolivia is an example of a man past his zenith: what does one do when one has accomplished one's greatest goal? Cuba was Fidel's (though Che had been his right-hand man, he was also always originally Argentine, and too much a guerrilla—the grittiest brand of idealist, but an idealist nonetheless—to become a politician), and Che had to find a country, a revolution, of his own. At a certain point, it becomes clear that Bolivia is something of a suicide mission (as his stint in the Congo, which Soderbergh does not include, almost was) for a man so committed that death was always preferable to compromise.

In a question-and-answer period after the screening, Soderbergh pointed out that Che's character arc is actually a straight line, and that the drama comes from the possibility of deviation from that standard (of which there is little). This is why, he explained, the film might seem cold, dry, or unemotional (an audience member noticed the lack of music, which uncompromising choice I commend). To one constantly cloyed by sentimentalism, though, this "minimalism" (it's not, really, minimal; it only seems so in comparison to the barrage of hyperbolic films in vogue this decade) is so incredibly welcome. Soderbergh needs no crutches; the screenplay (in Spanish, another key refusal to compromise), the acting, and the framing of each shot are all so taut, so on point, that we are inspired to think and feel (as opposed to being cued to unthinkingly feel, like Pavlovian dogs). Soderbergh also mentioned choosing these jungle battle scenes less for any polemical reason than one of identification: making a movie in the jungle with a disorganized group of assistants is something like fighting a revolution in the jungle with a disorganized group of recruits. But the brilliant director was too humble to go so far as to explain his other synergy with Che: complete dedication, and a refusal to compromise. Had this film been made in English, it would have been unwatchable. Had this film been a mere two hours, it would have only told half the story. Had this film ended with a shot of the astounding Benicio Del Toro collapsing to the plangent pluck of a guitar string, it would have garnered my wrath. Instead, Soderbergh films the execution from Che's collapsed eyes: the dusty floor, and the shadowy shoes of his executioner melting into the frame's corner. It's gorgeous and perfect.

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