Cannes, In Competition

CANNES -- The irrepressibly multitasking Steven Soderbergh has now set his roving sights on Latin American revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara, with mostly positive results.

If this earnest, two-part biopic with a total running time of 268 minutes sometimes lacks cinematic flair, the straight-ahead, chronologically-driven film will inform and, to a somewhat lesser extent, excite viewers everywhere.

It's hard to imagine how the two-parter idea is going to strike distributors and exhibitors, however, and, because the film lacked any opening or closing credits at its Cannes premiere, it may very well be that it is destined for such a venue as HBO or Showtime. In any case, ancillary sales should be excellent in all markets.

The two parts are radically different in subject matter and, a bit less so, in form. It's clear that the overriding structural idea is that of a mirror image: Part 1, much more humorous, centers on the victory over Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista and is all up, up, up, while Part 2 is about Guevara's participation in the failed uprising in Bolivia and is all down, down, down.

In Cuba, Fidel and Che are loved by the peasantry and become god-like figures; in Bolivia, Che, forced to use an assumed name, is frustratingly unable to rally the people to his side and is hunted like an animal by the Bolivian army. In the most powerful segment of the entire film, he is finally murdered after being betrayed by one of his beloved campesinos.

The heart of the film is the robust yet subtle portrayal of the asthma-stricken revolutionary by Benicio del Toro. He is an idealist who obviously really believes in the possibility of equality between human beings, but Soderbergh is mostly content to show repeated examples of his benevolence rather than develop its potentially complex contradictions.

Both parts are organized in a flattening, strictly chronological manner, with dozens upon dozens of intertitles that fix time and place, though Part 1 also is interspersed with a post-revolution, black and white interview with a North American journalist which adds Che's political perspectives. Scenes set in the United Nations, where Che delivers a firebrand speech, are among the best in this part.

Part 2 seems to go on forever, with tiny, doomed, most indistinguishable skirmishes following one after the other (this part could use some serious trimming). Yet it's inherently more interesting than its counterpart because it is, first of all, played in a tragic rather than triumphant key, and second, because the story it documents is much less well known.

Some minor things might annoy some audience members. While Matt Damon's one-minute part as a gringo missionary is serviceable, nevertheless his sudden appearance in a film filled with mostly unknown actors comes as a laugh-producing shock. Franka Potente has a small role as a guerrilla in Bolivia and, dubbed into Spanish, seems utterly uncomfortable in every scene. Latin American sources have told this reviewer that the Puerto-Rican born del Toro doesn't even attempt to reproduce Che's trademark Argentinian accent in Spanish. But of course these will be slight or invisible flaws for the vast majority of those who will see this film.

All in all, it's a highly worthwhile, professionally accomplished project, but in its obsessive devotion to precise documentation, the film forgets to inspire.

Cast: Benicio del Toro, Demian Bichir, Santiago Cabrera, Elvira Minguez, Jorge Perugorria, Edgar Ramirez, Victor Rasuk, Franka Potente, Matt Damon. DIRECTOR: Steven Soderbergh. SCREENWRITER: Peter Buchman. PRODUCERS: Laura Bickford, Benicio del Toro.SALES AGENT: Wild Bunch.
No MPAA rating. Part 1, 137 minutes; Part 2, 131 minutes.
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