Steven Soderbergh's 'Che' is a massive, sprawling, intimate, one-of-a-kind movie made by a director who knows no fear, working at the peak of his artistic prowess. To try and take the life of the Cuban revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara (played by 'Traffic's Benicio del Toro), a man who helped get Fidel into power and saw to the execution of more than 500 dissenters, before leading similar guerilla campaigns around the world, and wrangle it into a "mere" four-and-a-half-hours is something approaching madness. To choose to forgo traditional funding, including any kind of American backing, and shoot the entire thing in Spanish, seems even crazier. And the not-insignificant fact that it turned out to be something of an overlooked masterpiece? Well, that might be the craziest thing of all.
'Che' is broken down into two halves. The first half, 'The Argentine,' follows Che's rise to power. His beginnings as a asthmatic young doctor, drafted into revolutionary work during the Cuban revolution, the ascension of Fidel Castro to power (toppling the Batista dictatorship), and Che's iconic trip to the United Nations in 1964. In typical Soderbergh fashion, the chronology is all jumbled up, and the effect is incredibly powerful. Is it incredibly insightful as to who Che the man was? What made him tick? Well, no. But it does give you a great sense of the events that helped shape Che the man. (By all accounts he was a cold and distant bastard.) As a single filmed account of Che's life, this could have been enough. The first part of 'Che' is meaty, thought provoking, and beautifully filmed (with a combination of digital work and 16 mm black-and-white for the U.N. stuff). In fact, it might be the greatest thing Steven Soderbergh has ever done, and this is saying a lot.
The first part of 'Che' overwhelms and envelops you. You aren't swayed, particularly, by Che's revolutionary conquests as much as you're given a first hand account in which you can appreciate the lengths of which he did what he accomplished, especially with so few compatriots and resources. It's quite clear Che isn't the nicest fellow, but his transformation from a young doctor in the South American jungle to the toast of the U.N. (in his most T-shirt ready look) is as about as compelling a story as they get. Filmed beautifully through Soderbergh's singular eye (and utilizing, for the first time, the RED digital camera, which went on to shoot 'District 9' and 'Gamer') and the jungles look as threatening and vibrant as anything in 'Avatar.' (The black-and-white stuff is just as compelling, although it's looser, handheld photography.) It's just a masterpiece, really. And you're only halfway done.
The second half of 'Che,' 'Guerilla,' chronicles Che's Bolivian campaign, a campaign that directly followed a similarly failed campaign in the Congo. This was the campaign that seemed doomed from the start and concludes with Che's capture and execution. The difference between Part 1 and Part 2 mostly has to do with the structure. While Part 1 focuses on a specific campaign (the Cuban Revolution), it's interspersed with biographical detail and context and framed around his famous jaunt to the U.N. Part 2 is simply the Bolivian campaign, free of context, political, personal, or otherwise. (The Congo campaign is never mentioned.)
By the time you're done with part 2 you really do feel like you've served under Guevera. It's a long, hard slog through perilous jungle terrain. Unlike the first half, the second half is robbed of much of the lush color pallet and has a broader aspect ratio. It feels less like a traditional movie narrative and more like an embedment. It's a long, losing battle. But one half of 'Che' doesn't quite work without the other half. And the main purpose of 'Che's second half is character development. Like the protagonist of 'The Hurt Locker,' Che is a guy who was only happy when he was in a conflict. 'Guerilla' showcases this beautifully. Even in the face of certain doom, Che keeps the campaign alive. And even if you don't agree with his methods or his politics, he's an impressive figure nonetheless. While the second half of 'Che' doesn't have the zippy charge that the first half does, it's an even deeper, more immersive experience and the movie as a whole is nothing short of a jaw-dropping work of biographical art.
I know I'm focusing a lot on the filmmaking of 'Che' but enough can't be said about the film's lead, Benicio del Toro. He won for his performance at Cannes (in a slightly different version of the movie), and it is an award he totally deserved. He doesn't have a lot to work with, given Che's gruff stoicism, and he didn't have a lot of time to experiment, either. Even though the film was being developed for the better part of ten years, the back-to-back shoots were very quick. But man, he makes the impossible possible, embodying a polarizing figure at two extreme points in his life many years apart and still manages to create a totally gripping and believable on-screen Che.
The first time I saw 'Che' it was in one marathon go, at a press screening during the New York Film Festival, and had a brief intermission where they served us lunch (don't worry, the crummy free sandwich had no affect on my diagnosis of the film). It remains one of the most impressive cinematic experiences I've ever had. And thankfully, the good folks at Criterion have put together a package every bit worthy of the film.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Che' comes handsomely packaged as a two-disc box set, with each disc getting its own chunky Criterion wide-box (the two films share one number - #496). The disc does not automatically play when you pop in the disc. Each disc is 50GB. It should also be noted that Criterion went to pains to recreate the 'roadshow' presentation of 'Che' (which is how it was screened at Cannes and the New York Film Festival, as well as during its brief theatrical run). That means that, even though it's spread across two discs, it maintains the 'map' sections that started the films (and acted as an intermission for part two). It's really beautifully done. Great stuff. Also, these discs are Region "A" locked.
This presentation of 'Che' is nothing short of jaw-dropping. In particular, the first half is one of the most gorgeous-looking Blu-ray discs I have ever seen.
Each half has its own aspect ratio, faithfully reproduced here. Part 1 has a more classically cinematic aspect ratio of 2.35:1 and Part 2 comes equipped with a squarer aspect ratio of 1.78:1. (Soderbergh was his own brilliant director of photography.) Both are 1080p transfers with MPEG-4 AVC encodes.
These are direct-from-the digital source transfers (except, of course, for the 16mm stuff in part 1) and they are totally gorgeous in every way. Just like all the peerless Pixar movies, the direct-from-source transfer leaves you with a picture quality that is nothing short of flawless.
The first half, in particular, with its lush jungle settings, absolutely pop on Blu-ray. I'd be hard pressed to say I've seen anything like it, because I just don't think that's true. Everything is outstanding – detail, clarity, skin tones, black levels (except in some nighttime scenes, which Soderbergh wanted to look a little softer), textures, and colors. There are no buggy technical issues of any kind, and while the transfer attempted to maintain a "film-like" look, there is no actual grain to interfere with the image. (Again, unless it's intentional, like the deliberately old-looking 16mm bits.) Part 2 has a more muted color pallet but all of the superlatives remain.
I dare anyone, home video enthusiast or just casual viewer, to pop in the first part and not let out an audible gasp at the gorgeousness of this transfer. Just beautiful, this one ranks up there with the best of them, a reference-quality picture if I've ever seen one.
Just as brilliant as the transfer is the Spanish DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix on this disc. As far as I can tell, this mix is flawless.
Dialogue is crisp, clear, and strongly reproduced. The surround field is used excellently - not only in the intense battle sequences, with bullets whizzing by and trains toppling over, but in the simpler scenes, with the sound of rain hitting the leaves in the jungle - active but never overly bombastic. Additionally, the beautiful, subtle score by Alberto Iglesias (who works with Almodovar a lot) sounds incredible. The mix dazzles throughout, in the quieter scenes and in the more action packed stuff alike. And what's so great, so essential about this mix (particularly in the film's second half) is that it really does put you in the shoes of one of those idealistic grunts, following Che through some godforsaken South American jungle.
There is no hiss, no pops, no technical issues to speak of either. It's hard to describe something that is more or less perfect, because that is what we have here. It's just great.
A couple of notes about the mix: although the Spanish mix is the only one available for both parts, there is an option on the first part to have a bit of narration be in Spanish or in English. It was in Spanish for the Cannes cut and then Soderbergh (rightfully) thought it was too overwhelming and changed it to English for the Toronto and New York Film Festival premieres and subsequent roadshow presentations. I agree with the move to change this brief bit to English, although the disc gives you the option to watch it the other way around. It's really wonderful that Criterion gave us the option. (If you want to cite why they are still the greatest producers of home video content, you can point to this.) Also, both films have optional English subtitles. Since the aspect ratios are different, when you watch the first half, the subtitles will be in the black space while on the second half they will appear 'in-frame.'
There's an amazing package of extra features spread across both discs. Also included is an essay by Amy Taubin, one of the film's earliest supporters (she got behind the film after its troubled Cannes showing). Additionally, Criterion's Blu-ray-exclusive 'Timeline' feature is present. Everything else is available on the DVD box set.
A couple weeks into this new year and Criterion's dynamic presentation of Steven Soderbergh's difficult, brilliant epic 'Che' sets the bar ridiculously high. The movie is a masterpiece, and a must-see for anyone who missed its festival screenings or roadshow presentations (don't worry - they've been reproduced beautifully here) or has an interest in history or film. This package has an outstanding, voluminous collection of top-tier special features and flawless A/V is that is nothing short of stunning. This set goes beyond great. It feels downright revolutionary. Highly recommended.