By Kaity Chiocca
Steven Soderbergh's “The Argentine,” the first of two films comprising the “Che” epic is just as much a story of the Cuban Revolution as it is a story of the revolutionary.
Che (Benicio Del Toro) is the vehicle through which the audience experiences the 1959 revolution, and while his uncompromising search for social ideals, passionate rhetoric, and unapologetic politics hold the viewer's attention for the film's duration, his commanding character does not overshadow the importance of the Revolution as a people's movement, an organic outgrowth of popular discontent. Neither Che nor Fidel could claim sole responsibility for the outcome of the Cuban Revolution and the film is careful not to make this claim. “Che” does not idol worship, but it can not help but paint Che as a hero. In the process, however, it creates heroes of the guerrillas who fought along with him, of the Cuban people.
This portion of the film begins with Che's 1964 journey to New York and his address before the United Nations. Shot in grainy black and white reminiscent of an old news reel, Soderbergh delves deeper into Che's revolutionary politics through an interview with journalist Lisa Howard (Julia Ormond). While dominated by a primarily chronological account of the two year journey toward Havana, Soderbergh also weaves in a meeting between Che and Castro (Demian Bichir) and ends “The Argentine” on the Granma as it crosses the Gulf of Mexico.
Soderbergh's cinematography is stunning, immersing the viewer in the Sierra Maestra, sewing together images of lush jungle with the grittiness of guerrilla warfare. Rather than epic battle sequences, Soderbergh focuses on the training of fighters, both in combat and in literacy, on hunger, on the treatment of the wounded, on Che's worsening asthma. There is nothing romantic about the film, though the imagery and music itself is beautiful. The soundtrack is subtle, mesmerizing, but it is perhaps the absence of music which characterizes the most powerful scenes. The sound of chirping birds blend with intermittent gunfire and the whisper of the hidden guerrillas to create a soundtrack secondary to that composed by Alberto Iglesias, one which completely envelopes the listener, inviting him to experience a revolutionary movement unadulterated by the bells and whistles of contemporary Hollywood.
It is this minimalism which characterizes the entirety of the film and guides the psychological development of the characters. The relationships between Che and his comrades, namely Castro and Camilo Cienfuegos, become clear to the viewer not primarily through dialogue, but rather through words unspoken, a handshake or nod, silent gestures of respect.
Yet all the respect that Soderbergh and Del Toro generate for Che begins to fade as the second film, “Guerrilla” chronicles Che's downfall in the jungles of Bolivia. Less exciting than its predecessor, “Guerrilla” paints a deeply psychological portrait of the man committed to bringing revolution to all of Latin America. Unlike in Cuba, the Bolivian fighters whom Che recruited had little faith or interest in the cause and the revolution was a failure. Yet Che held strong in the face of American intervention in the region despite mounting casualties on his side. Here, Soderbergh explores the space between determination and foolish stubbornness.
Soderbergh has created a Che who is neither martyr nor murderer. Keeping a firm grip on historical accuracy, his film is brilliantly acted and beautifully shot. The jungles of Latin America serve as actors in their own right, breathing life into a film which sees the death of many, including Che. Ultimately, however, the film, or more specifically the struggles and triumphs, as well as the failures, is an inspiration and well worth the nearly 4 and a half hour runtime.