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Charting Che

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Soderbergh Traces Rise and Fall of Famed Revolutionary

The original version of American director Steven Soderbergh’s ambitious “Che” that played at the Cannes Film Festival in 2008 clocked in at some four and a half hours, running longer than “Lawrence of Arabia,” another war epic that has brought to mind some comparisons. After one-week Oscar-qualifying runs in New York and Los Angeles, “Che” is being released as two films. “Che Part I: The Argentine” explores the terrain covered in Ernesto “Che” Guevara’s “Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War,” while “Che Part II: Guerrilla” is based on the iconic communist revolutionary’s “Bolivian Diary.”

“The Argentine” shows Guevara (Benicio Del Toro) first meeting Fidel Castro (Demián Bichir, in a notable part) at a dinner party in Mexico. Guevara joins Castro in leading a revolutionary army across Cuba to depose dictator Gen. Fulgencio Batista. Much of the film details the revolutionaries’ everyday activities as well as important battles. The movie is interspersed by scenes of Guevara being interviewed by a U.S. journalist (Julia Ormond) during his 1964 visit to the United Nations, where he represented post-revolutionary Cuba with powerfully delivered speeches.

As a whole, “Che” has faced a lot of mixed reactions. Soderbergh’s direction is solid, but he’s definitely taking risks and experimenting. “Che” is not a traditional biopic. It doesn’t have much narrative explanation, in the usual Hollywood sense, and it tells a series of events and expects the viewer to learn about the story and characters in that way. It’s not a typical character study, either, but it sort of feels like one because Puerto Rican actor Benicio Del Toro (Best Actor at Cannes) completely inhabits the character of Guevara in a tour-de-force performance.

Guevara in fact appears in nearly every scene, even when he is not the center of attention in the frame. And he often isn’t. He’s definitely a leader, but he’s frequently just one of many characters in a scene. An example is when he and his comrades collectively welcome new recruits by individually embracing them — reflecting perhaps a sense of equality was one of the appeals of Cuba’s revolution.

Che Part I: The Argentine (Spanish with subtitles and English; 131 min.; scope) Opens Fri., Jan. 16 Landmark’s E Street Cinema 4 out of 5 stars

Revolutionary’s Devolution Benicio del Toro is equally effective in “Che Part II: Guerrilla,” based on Ernesto “Che” Guevara’s “Bolivian Diary.” “Guerrilla” was meant to be seen along with “Che Part I: The Argentine,” which I highly recommend seeing first. It provides background information about Guevara’s time in Cuba to help explain his motivation in “Guerrilla.” In fact, director Steven Soderbergh was first planning to just tell the story of “Guerrilla,” but he expanded the project to include what became “The Argentine” because he felt “Guerrilla” didn’t make enough sense by itself.

For the second part of the “Che” saga, Soderbergh (also serving as cinematographer under a pseudonym) reduces the width of the onscreen image. In more ways than one, this signals that Guevara’s field of vision is narrower than in “The Argentine.”

The mood in “The Argentine” starts out optimistic and grows more so over time as success comes to Guevara and his comrades. By contrast, in “Guerrilla,” the mood starts out uncertain and becomes more so over time as failures pile up, an appropriate shift because the audience knows this revolutionary campaign in Bolivia was a failure and led to Che’s execution.

But it also makes the second part a more difficult film for the audience. One skirmish follows another without much explanation. Often, we really just don’t know what is going on. Is that because Soderbergh is effectively portraying the perceptions of Che and his comrades on the ground? Or is it a narrative shortcoming? Or both?

“Guerrilla” is still worth watching, but it’s not as effectively executed as “The Argentine.” One feels that perhaps Soderbergh was being a bit self-indulgent in making two different parts with a running time totaling nearly four and a half hours. An alternate approach might have been better — perhaps cutting more from both parts, including many of the battle scenes from “Guerrilla,” and combining the footage that’s left with “The Argentine.” Then you’d have a single, tighter three-hour film. On the other hand, Soderbergh says that’s what he abandoned in the first place because it didn’t make sense, though it remains to be seen if this final version will make sense to everyone else.

Che Part II: Guerrilla (Spanish with subtitles; 132 min.) Opens Fri., Jan. 16 Landmark’s E Street Cinema

3.5 out of 5 stars

Still Wild

Courtesy of upstart micro-distributor the Film Desk, French New Wave auteur François Truffaut’s “The Wild Child” (1970) receives a well-deserved re-release with a new print that showcases Néstor Almendros’s clean black-and-white photography. At first glance, “The Wild Child” appears to be a complete stylistic and thematic change from other films by Truffaut. (He even makes an unusual appearance as a lead actor.) In one sense, however, “The Wild Child” is a coming-of-age story not necessarily all that different from “The 400 Blows.”

“The Wild Child” is closely based on “Memoire et Rapport sur Victor de L’Aveyron,” the diary of Dr. Jean Itard, who became guardian of a “savage” boy dubbed Victor, found in 1799 in the Averyon forest in southern France. The approximately 11-year-old had been scavenging for food in the woods, apparently surviving alone for several years. He was discovered when he — naked, dirty and feral — startled a woman picking berries. The boy was captured by farmers, detained by the police, and then sent to a school for the deaf because he didn’t speak so he was first thought to be deaf.

A product of the Age of Enlightenment, Itard (played by Truffaut) seeks to “civilize” Victor (convincingly played by Jean-Pierre Cargol, a French Gypsy) by teaching him normal human practices. Truffaut delivers an understated, sensitive portrayal of Itard — a performance that compelled Steven Spielberg to later cast him in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” Most of the words in the movie come from Truffaut’s own spoken English narration of Itard’s journal, detailing the doctor’s patient efforts to teach Victor day by day.

Ultimately, Itard makes relatively little progress with Victor, who never becomes a “normal” human being. So the question remains: Would it have been better to had left Victor in the woods? Would he have been happier in a “natural” state?

The Wild Child (L’ Enfant Sauvage) (French with subtitles and English; 85 min.) Landmark’s E Street Cinema

4 out of 5 stars

Repertory Notes

Please see International FilmClips for detailed listings available at press time.

National Gallery of Art The National Gallery examines the work of Latvian-born Finnish actor and director Teuvo Tulio in the late 1930s and early 1940s — which influenced the style of noted modern-day Finnish directors Mika and Aki Kaurismäki. (202) 842-6799, www.nga.gov/programs/film

Film|Neu The 17th annual Film|Neu festival of new German-language cinema from Germany, Austria and Switzerland returns Jan. 23 to 29 to Landmark’s E Street Cinema. (202) 289-1200, www.goethe.de/ins/us/was/kue/flm/enindex.htm

Freer Gallery of Art The Freer’s 13th annual festival of Iranian films runs Jan. 9 to Feb. 22, opening with Ali Atshani’s comedy “Banana Skin” (Jan 9 and 11). (202) 357-2700, www.asia.si.edu/events/films.asp

WAFCA Awards

With four wins, “Slumdog Millionaire” leads the pack in this year’s awards from the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (of which I’m a voting member), the first critics group to announce 2008 picks. Complementing the best film nod by the National Board of Review, the prize further lifts “Slumdog Millionaire” out of underdog status for the Academy Awards. It might even be said to be the frontrunner now. Here are the rest of WAFCA’s picks:

Best Film: “Slumdog Millionaire” Best Director: Danny Boyle (“Slumdog Millionaire”) Best Actor: Mickey Rourke (“The Wrestler”) Best Actress: Meryl Streep (“Doubt”) Best Ensemble: “Doubt” Best Supporting Actor: Heath Ledger (“The Dark Knight”) Best Supporting Actress: Rosemarie DeWitt (“Rachel Getting Married”) Best Breakthrough Performance: Dev Patel (“Slumdog Millionaire”) Best Adapted Screenplay: Simon Beaufoy (“Slumdog Millionaire”) Best Original Screenplay: Jenny Lumet (“Rachel Getting Married”) Best Animated Feature: “Wall_E” Best Foreign Language Film: “Let the Right One In” Best Documentary: “Man on Wire” Best Art Direction: “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”

About the Author

Ky N. Nguyen is the film reviewer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on July 9, 2014