“Che”
At the Michigan
IFC Films

Courtesy of IFC Films

2.5 out of 5 Stars

Che Guevara is unquestionably one of the most polarizing figures in human history, continuing even today to inspire masses of both lovers and haters.

The guerilla warrior at the heart of the Cuban Revolution, Guevara remains the most enduring symbol of the radical left, seen as a selfless liberator by many and as a ruthless mercenary by just as many others. Director Steven Soderbergh’s sprawling 257-minute tribute to the man is similarly enigmatic, with a lively first part to draw in audiences and a grueling second part to drive them away.

Most viewers will see the two parts separately, but the “Special Roadshow Edition” playing at the Michigan Theater through Friday is a chance to take in a truly unique experience. For an elevated ticket price ($12 for students), viewers can see both parts with a 20-minute intermission and also get a handy little collector’s edition program. If the thought of over four hours of guerilla action is too daunting, the theater is permitting viewers to leave at intermission and return on a later day for the second part.

Part one of the film is about the Cuban Revolution, with a young Guevara (Benecio del Toro, “Traffic”) commanding guerillas for Fidel Castro’s 26th of July Movement. Interspersed among the gritty action sequences are cuts forward in time to Guevara speaking to American reporters and to the United Nations on behalf of Castro’s Cuba. What emerges is a rather complete image of a man convinced of his cause and unrelenting in his methods.

Part two focuses on Guevara’s subsequent attempt to launch a leftist revolution in Bolivia. Older and — in the cold mountain air — more prone to the asthma attacks that plagued him his whole life, Guevara is weaker, his efforts errant and unsuccessful. Del Toro, whose work earned him the Best Actor award at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, drives both parts with an intensely focused, brooding performance.

The film is appropriately dark and elusive, yet also unfocused and muddled. It embraces Guevara’s immortal persona, one del Toro wears very well. But ultimately, there’s no answer to the questions of “why this film?” and “why now?”. Most directors who take on ambitious projects about timeless icons will have a deeply personal or socially timely reason for doing so. If Soderbergh feels such a connection to this work, he certainly hides it well.

Just as he did with his abrasively naïve approach to “The Good German” three years ago, it seems that Soderbergh sees “Che” as a fun little prerogative earned by his other directorial achievements. He has again created a unique film that (with the intermission and programs provided with the ticket) hearkens to the days of old Hollywood. And again, he seems to have no purpose for his travail other than his own amusement. Guevara was a monumental figure whose life affected millions; a story about his life should be more than a kickback for some hotshot Hollywood director.

While far from essential or even consequential, as it may have been under a different guiding hand, “Che” is reasonably interesting and watchable. Still, it’s hard to ignore the fact that Guevara’s larger-than-life story and del Toro’s uncanny ability to embody it did not result in something more.

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