Che (dir: Steven Soderbergh)
Steven Soderbergh’s Che is both two features and one work, a 4 ½-hour production that carves out what Soderbergh, producer/star Benicio Del Toro and screenwriter Peter Buchman see as the two defining periods in the life of Ernesto Che Guevara: the Cuban Revolution and the Bolivian expedition. Except for a brief scene where Guevara meets Fidel Castro in Mexico City and newsreel-like segments chronicling Guevara’s 1964 visit to New York and address to the United Nations. There’s practically nothing of his personal life, no effort to put his campaigns in political or social context, and no attempt to address his controversial actions (including the execution of political prisoners) as part of Castro’s government in the aftermath of the Cuban victory.
It’s not that Soderbergh and screenwriter Peter Buchman assume that spectators will arrive with knowledge of that history. You can glean some of that from the dialogues, from Guevara’s idealistic drive, and from the New York sequences and his unblinking enforcement the revolutionary code on deserters and criminals in the jungle. Che is neither hagiography nor deconstruction and its certainly not an exploration of the man behind the myth. It’s about how Dr. Ernesto Guevara transformed himself revolutionary leader Che, an idealist with a gun, a teacher with a mission, a single-minded warrior for social justice who never betrays his feelings to his followers. And it’s a classic rise and fall, each part a different film – the underdog campaign and triumph in Cuba in Part One, the effort to repeat it in Bolivia, where it failed, in Part Two – that are reflections of one another, two parts of a whole. The rise and the fall. The success and the failure. The inspiration and the disillusionment.
Soderbergh photographs the films himself (under the credit Peter Andrews) in widescreen and lush color, shooting in long, deliberate takes that soak in the textures of the experience and offer the sense of time passing. There’s a romanticism to these guerrillas in Eden (even if they are carrying guns) that is more idealized than convincing, but the immediacy of their day-to-day lives — training, working, interacting with local farmers and dispossessed peasants — is as captivating as the battles and skirmishes.
Throughout, Soderbergh keeps an emotional distance from Guevara, and Del Toro’s Guevara never breaks character: Once he embraces the role of revolutionary leader, Guevara leaves his personal life behind to be the teacher, the healer, the exemplar of the revolutionary code, forever setting an example.
Last Chance Harvey (dir: Joel Hopkins)
Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson play lonely singles who meet as strangers and spend the film getting to know one another. It may not be the last chance for Hoffman’s Harvey, a divorced man who lost his family out of sheer neglect and now writes jingles for an ad agency in a job he hates, but it’s pretty close and he responds to this chance at forming a relationship with the openness of a guy who has spent the last couple of decades utterly closed. I have to say, I quite liked their company and I enjoyed seeing a film about mature people acting like adults.
The second feature from Joel Hopkins is not quite “Before Sunrise” for the over-40 crowd, but the comparison works. Both are understated and introspective romantic dramas, focused more on people than plot and built up out of shared moments of people getting to know one another.
Hoffman and Thompson make real (or at least relatable) people of these characters who have nothing to lose and everything to gain. Hopkins directs with warmth, affection and a simple respect for all the characters, and he adds touching grace notes to their story.
Read my review at the P-I here.