Benicio Del Toro brings 'Che' home

3:35 PM PST 12/07/2008 by Carl DiOrio, AP

Havana film festival eagerly welcomes biopic

HAVANA -- Benicio Del Toro has marched into town with perhaps less import but no less renown than Ernesto "Che" Guevara himself thanks to huge local interest in his big-screen portrayal of the legendary revolutionary.

"There was a responsibility to this role, and bringing the film here has only increased that sense of responsibility," Del Toro told a throng of mostly Hispanic media packed into a conference room at the Hotel Nacional here.

The 30th annual Latin American Film Festival of Havana -- or more simply, the Habana Film Festival -- features 114 competing films from 14 countries in the region and elsewhere. But Steven Soderbergh's "Che" has been a publicity gift to the fest this year as the centerpiece of its noncompetitive special screenings, and its topliner was on hand to introduce the four-hour-plus film.

As in the U.S., both parts of the revolutionary epic are being screened together, with a brief intermission between the Cuba-centered first portion "The Argentine" and the Bolivia-based "Guerrilla." IFC Films is set to open "Che" on Friday in limited release.

A native of Puerto Rico, Del Toro was met with a standing ovation when he addressed Saturday's boisterously receptive audience at Cinema Yara.

"It felt pretty singular," Del Toro told The Hollywood Reporter of his reaction to the crowd's reception. "The circle was completed."

Cuban attorney Alex Gonzalez was in among the 2,500-plus in the Yara audience. He -- like seemingly everybody else in the standing-room-only movie house -- met the final credits of "Argentine" with a lusty cheer.

"I liked it," Gonzalez said with a wide grin. "This is a part of the war we don't know as much about -- Che's group."

Not that there is a lack of information about the more famous aspects of Guevara's revolutionary exploits. He may have died in battle some four decades ago, but his image and legend remain omnipresent in Cuba.

Every hotel in Cuba sells Che T-shirts. Guevara's profile is sculpted in bronze on the facade of the Interior Ministry in the Plaza de la Revolucion. His image is embossed on Cuban coins.

So it would be hard to exaggerate the interest among Cubans in Soderbergh's treatment of their Argentine hero. "He was born in Argentina, but for us he was Cuban," Gonzalez said.

The Yara audience also cheered a half-dozen or so other "Che" cast members who joined Del Toro onstage, some of them particularly popular from roles in telenovelas on Cuban television. Soderbergh did not attend.

Several times during the screening, Mexican actor Demian Bichir drew appreciative laughter for his well-detailed mimicking of Fidel Castro in his portrayal of the Cuban leader. Del Toro said he took his own visual cues on Guevara's posture and demeanor from historic photos.

The first part of "Che" -- which documents the Cuban revolution as well as later Guevara activities as a government official -- was filmed primarily in Spain because of restrictions against U.S. productions filming in Cuba. But for more than a year, Cuban film officials have been abuzz with speculation about whether a new U.S. administration might mean a relaxing of those restrictions and a path back into the movie mainstream for Cuban filmmakers.

"Che" was also set for a Sunday night screening at the 5,000-seat Karl Marx Theatre.

The sprawling political drama has been screening for weeks in Los Angeles after playing to a curiously muted reception at the last Festival de Cannes. Plans call for showing the film in its entirely in the U.S. only through December, with the pic's two halves to play separately when "Che" expands in January.

"That was a commercial decision," Del Toro told The Reporter. "But when the press talks about it being two different films, they just don't get it -- it's all one thing."

On Friday, it also was screened in Miami, where the majority of Cuban ex-pats consider Guevara anything but a hero. About 100 protesters greeted Del Toro, who also helped introduce the pic to an upscale crowd at Miami's Art Basel art festival.

"That's part of what makes America," Del Toro said of the protest. "You get to say what you think. I find it a little weird that they were protesting without having seen the film, but that's another matter."

The Habana Film Festival continues through Friday.
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