As is usually the case with Steven Soderbergh's films, his two-part epic "Che" is immaculately cut, this time with yeoman's work turned in by editor Pablo Zumárraga (Soderbergh is also heavily involved in editing all of his films.) In one sequence in "Che: Part Two," members of Che's Bolivian column trudge through fetid waters, struggling to keep their increasingly heavy rifles high and dry. After an overhead shot emphasizes the ripples scattered by their passage, Soderbergh (who also shot the film under his alias Peter Andrews) moves to medium close-ups of each of the rebels. Huffing, their eyes dart left and right, while they try to coordinate each lurching step through the muck. Left, right, left, right. Once these claustrophobic shots ratchet up the tension, there is an abrupt cut to a hand feeding a round of ammunition into a mounted machine gun. Both the hand and the rifle are at the edge of the shot; the bullets dominate the frame, an ominous composition. Soderbergh delays the action with one more cut, this time to a Bolivia officer who waits and waits and waits… "Fire!" The ambush is launched, but once the shots ring out we don't cut to the rebels but to a local farmer who covers his ears to drown the sound. We never see the guerillas again. Their slaughter is all the more horrific for its bloodlessness. They simply cease to be. It's not just a cost-effective sequence but a remarkable piece of taut, efficient filmmaking that showcases the strengths of this sometimes taxing yet fascinating project.
Soderbergh and crew bring this attention to detail not just to the piano-wire taut action scenes, but to sweaty daily life in the jungles. In both parts of "Che," history is not about grand plans but about the placement of bodies in time and space, bodies waiting and bodies moving. There are numerous shots of Che and his allies crouching behind rocks, leaning against a tree (particularly the asthmatic Che gasping for air), milling about crowded camp sites. And waiting, always waiting. Though the movie has its share of set pieces, "Che" captures the sense of weighty boredom that represented daily life for these now "historical" figures.
But even at four and a half hours total running time, the film itself is never boring. It helps that Benicio Del Toro was born to play the role of Che Guevara just as surely as Shelley Duvall was genetically bred to play Olive Oyl. Though he is seldom seen in close-up until the later stages of Part Two, Del Toro's bearded, weary, impassive face is one of the movie's most enduring images.
It's the face that sold a million t-shirts and it's fair to say that we don't learn much more about what's going on beneath his exterior than we do from a cheap cotton decal. "Che" is a film of surfaces and of behavior, showing us what but not why, making it short on illumination. Despite the obsessive focus on detail, this is not a primer on the Cuban or Bolivian Revolution. It's a film that exists in the moment history is made, not with the later perspective that enables us to put the story neatly into history. This is more about sweat and dirty boots.
The production of "Che" was a daunting prospect by any standard. Part One covers his efforts in the successful Cuban Revolution while Part Two traces the tragic path of his doomed-before-it-started foray into Bolivian rebellion. Each part (Part Two was actually shot first) had to be shot in 39 days, a logistical nightmare for location shooting involving such a large cast and with its share of elaborately staged action sequences. Soderbergh shot the more action-laden Part One in widescreen anamorphic, the jungle nightmare Part Two in 1.78:1. Neither format is inherently more claustrophobic or sprawling than the other, but the difference in the films' designs is striking. Part One is brighter and more elegant; the drab, monotone Part Two is more immediate with a hand-held camera that creeps ever closer to its walking dead characters.
The massive project was facilitated by Soderbergh's use of the RED Camera, a lightweight, portable digital camera that shoots in 4K resolution (or higher now.) Nine pounds and not lashed to any large storage devices (they ran through hundreds of flash cards during the shoot) the camera was a dream for Soderbergh and the sparkling results are difficult to deny. For all the talk about "Avatar" being the future of cinema, we're much more likely to look at "Che" as the more significant development in early 21st century film production.
Soderbergh has been taken to task for omitting the controversial period in between the two parts of the film when Che was in power in Cuba and participated in hundreds of executions. I'm not qualified to address that issue, but to me "Che" isn't a biopic so much as a "process-pic," a film about simply being there with men and woman grinding their way, sometimes on hands and knees, through a jungle that couldn't care less about them. On that level, it's completely engaging.
"Che: Part One" is presented in a 2.39:1 aspect ratio. "Part Two" is presented in 1.78:1. The Blu-Ray is, as always, sharper-looking than the SD release, but in this case the difference is less striking than usual. Color and contrast is about the same between the two, but details (leaves on the trees, etc.) are more vivid in Blu.
Both parts are presented in lossless DTS-HD 5.1. The sound provides a more noticeable improvement than the image does in relation to the SD, but it's still not a world of difference. But the jungle noises that provide a constant background soundtrack are sharper and more evocative here.
Optional English subtitles support the Spanish dialogue but aren't provided for the English dialogue.
Part One also provides the choice between Spanish and English voice-over (by Del Toro/Che.) Go with the Spanish. You know you're a purist.
There are two discs in this Criterion Blu-Ray set. The design is significantly different than the SD release. Each of the two discs comes in its own keep case and the features are spread out over the two discs. The features are otherwise identical to the SD release. The two keep cases slide into a cardboard case.
Audio commentary is provided for each part by Jon Lee Anderson, author of "Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life." His commentary is jam packed with information and he often gets pretty animated, but his orientation is on historical detail rather than the film itself. Perhaps that makes this the educational companion piece to a film that is more focused on surface than on analysis. Disc One also includes a Theatrical Trailer.
The other extras are spread out over the two discs.
"Making Che" (50 min.) is a particularly informative and engrossing "making-of" documentary. Soderbergh's always a great interview and he's not shy about discussing what he sees as the sorry state of commercial filmmaking today. His comments about editing are particularly enlightening, as he notes that while scenes are more rapidly edited than ever, films actually are getting longer and longer. And there's something not quite right about that.
"Che and the Digital Revolution" (33 min.) goes into detail about the RED Camera technology that was so crucial to the film's production. The prototype camera wasn't even ready to go until about a day before principal photography and the demanding shoot provided a heck of a test for the new technology. This is a great feature.
"End of a Revolution" (26 min.) is a 1968 documentary by Brian Moser who was in Bolivia looking for Che when Che was executed. It begins with audio coverage when the army was displaying Che's body and continues with interviews with then Bolivian President René Barrientos as well as members of U.S. Special Forces involved with the hunt for Che.
Deleted Scenes from Part One (15 min.) and Part Two (5 min.) are also included.
The extras collection wraps up with "Interviews from Cuba" that were conducted by producer Laura Bickford and Del Toro. They are divided into interviews with revolutionary Participants (23 min.) and Historians (12 min.)
The 20-page insert booklet includes an essay by critic Amy Taubin.
A small fold-out poster identical to the box cover art is also included.
"Che" is a ground-level study in perseverance that gains its power from the density of bodies that dominate most frames. It's a film that remains stubbornly in the moment and on the surface which might frustrate viewers expecting a more traditional biopic or a history lesson. It's an immersion experience and a remarkably lean production even at four and a half hours running time. Soderbergh is the chameleon of modern Hollywood, shuffling between budget scales and genres. "Che" is one of his bolder experiments and Criterion has done a solid job in representing his effort.
As is usually the case, the Blu-Ray has the same retail price point as the SD, and can be found cheaper at many sites.