Long Legacy


Soderbergh and Del Toro Rebel Against Convention in’Che’

The Washington Diplomat attended a press conference in New York where American director Steven Soderbergh and Puerto Rican actor Benicio Del Toro spoke about their new four-and-a-half-hour, two-part film “Che,” about Ernesto “Che” Guevara’s revolutionary expeditions in Cuba and Bolivia.

Del Toro said he recalled Soderbergh saying, “It’s impossible to do a movie about Che. It’s impossible to play him. Let’s try.’”

Soderbergh said, “The alternative is giving up. That’s worse.”

In preparation, the filmmaking team met with many real-life people who knew Guevara. “They wanted to make sure that he’s made out of flesh and bone,” Del Toro said, “that he’s not some superhero.”

Soderbergh in particular recalled what a doctor friend of Guevara said: “You have to love Che for free.” Elaborating, the director said the enigmatic revolutionary was not as appealing in real life as many people think. “Fifty percent of the people who see the movie claim that it’s cold. There was certain distance in him — partially in his personality, partially being transposed to another culture. Part of it was the obligations and responsibilities of being a leader. That phrase always stuck in my head. Unless he’s in doctor mode, he’s apart from people.”

Still, Soderbergh’s lengthy, at times uneven depiction received mixed reaction when it premiered at Cannes in 2008. “The film is going to function as a provocation,” Soderbergh admitted. “Pro or con, we wanted to go make a big noise. It used to be a good thing if you made something that polarized people, a badge of honor.”

Asked about the film’s controversially long length, he quipped, “We should have done the 10-hour miniseries. No, I’m serious. There’s so much stuff that we wanted to do.”

He added: “I took a cue from nature. When a cell gets too big, it divides. Once we did that [split the film into two parts], all of the solutions arrived for the various problems we were having narratively, and things became a lot simpler.”

Soderbergh explained that he switched aspect ratios (the onscreen image’s width divided by its height) between the two parts of the film to visually express the differences between the two texts on which each part is based.

“‘Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War’ was written after the revolution. There’s a sort of macro hindsight in play here that results from writing about a victory. That required a wider frame,” he said. “‘The Bolivian Diary’ was contemporaneous. There’s no perspective. He’s isolated. He doesn’t know what’s going on. Visually, I’m looking at a style that makes you feel the outcome is unclear. The color palette is less inviting. The terrain is less inviting. The cutting is a little more arrhythmic. Just everything to give you a sense of dread just as you’re heading into the mountains in that jeep.

“I’m showing you their dream. It’s not my dream. It’s their dream,” he added. “Movies have the ability to change how people think. I want people to think, ‘Is there anything in my life I feel that passionately about that I would engage at that level?’”

Del Toro, asked if such a revolution could take place today, said it does, albeit in a different way. “You do it by voting. Respect the voters. A good example is Obama being elected president of the United States. Another example is an indigenous president being elected by the people in Bolivia. I don’t think that was even in Che’s radar back in 1964.”

About the Author

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