Page last updated at 14:42 GMT, Thursday, 22 May 2008 15:42 UK

'Flawed' Che film opens in Cannes

By Mark Savage
Entertainment reporter, BBC News in Cannes

Director Steven Soderbergh and actor Benicio Del Toro attend a photocall in Cannes
Benicio Del Toro (left) joined director Steven Soderbergh in Cannes
Steven Soderbergh's widely anticipated biopic of Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara has received a mixed reception from critics at the Cannes Film Festival.

The two-part portrait, which lasts in excess of four hours, stars Benecio Del Toro as Ernesto "Che" Guevara, and features a surprise cameo from Bourne Identity star Matt Damon.

Del Toro's performance is undoubtedly a revelation - with the firebrand military strategist revealed as a soft-spoken everyman. But, for many, the low-key performance was a disappointment.

"If anything, Che seems diminished by the way he's portrayed here," wrote Todd McCarthy in Hollywood trade paper Variety.

"It's literally a film in which there is no one to root for. At this enormous length, that's not good," added Roger Friedman from Fox News.

Che Guevara
Del Toro plays Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara

The general consensus is that director Steven Soderbergh, who packed such emotional punch with his last excursion into biography, Erin Brockovich, seems oddly detached from his current subject.

In tone and pace, Che reflects his smaller, experimental films - such as the lugubrious Solaris - rather than the high octane drama of Out of Sight or Traffic.

The first half, which is likely to be released separately as The Argentine, begins with the sound of Che testing a microphone - "uno, dos, tres" - before an interview for US television in the 1960s.

On-screen, a series of vignettes depict him meeting Fidel Castro a decade earlier, appearing at the United Nations after the revolution, and arriving in Cuba by boat.

These are among the only elements of context Soderbergh deigns to provide.

Complex character

Elsewhere, the audience is expected to be familiar with the locations, times, and events of Che's life - from the slow advance to Havana to his time in the Bolivian jungle.

In fact, the film often seems content to depict a catalogue of events from the revolutionary's life, with precious little insight into the inner life of this complex character.

When he executes a comrade for insubordination, there is no sign of emotion; no explanation of how acts of murder affected a man who, in other scenes, is shown to be a sensitive healer, acting as doctor to his troops and the peasants he is fighting for.

Benicio Del Toro as Che Guevara
Del Toro's portrayal of Guevara has already attracted Oscar buzz
Elsewhere, the tensions between the fighter and his political comrade Castro are hinted at, but never fully explored.

At a press conference the morning after the film's premiere, screenwriter Peter Buchman said he had deliberately avoided "movie moments", in an attempt to show the "intellectual" side of Che.

Soderbergh elaborated: "We're just trying to give you a sense of what it was like to hang out around this person."

And the film-maker was bullish in defending his decision to eschew conventional narrative and dramatic thrust.

"I find it hilarious that most of the stuff being written about movies is how conventional they are and now we have people arguing or upset that something's not conventional," he said.

Soderbergh's approach succeeds in showing Che as a real person, whose gentle manner and level head inspired those around him.

Julia Ormond in Cannes
British actress Julia Ormond also appears in the film

The long running time also allows an insight into the mundane nature of guerrilla warfare, with long stretches of inactivity in the jungle punctuated by sporadic exchanges of gunfire.

But, after four hours, this becomes draining rather than epic.

Not everyone in Cannes disliked the film, however. James Rochhi at movie website Cinematical likened it to Lawrence of Arabia.

Screen International's Allan Hunter called it "an absorbing, thoughtful marathon", while allowing that the second half is something of "an endurance test".

'Bad guy'

Despite the mixed reviews, most critics praised Del Toro's central performance.

The star said it had been a big challenge to step into Che's shoes, and he "became more and more like a deer in the headlights" as the start of filming approached last summer.

Speaking in Cannes, he revealed the revelatory moment that helped him come to grips with the task ahead.

"I never knew much about Che as a kid," he said. "I only knew one side, that he was a bad guy.

"But I remember being in Mexico City and going into a book store and seeing a picture of Che and he had a really warm smile.

"I thought there was something wrong, so I got a book and from there I started to learn a little bit the love that people felt for this man."

The prospect of an Academy Award for the Puerto Rican film star has already been raised in several circles.

But with no buyer for the movie in the US at the time of writing, bringing Che to a wider audience may prove to be an uphill struggle.

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