‘Che’: Soderbergh’s Own Revolution?

“Well if this film makes $100 million, I’ll make the third one,” Steven Soderbergh offers half-ironically, half-seriously about his plus-size epic on the infamous Cuban-overthrowing, Argentine revolutionary, of iconic black beret fame, “Commandante” Ernesto Che Guevara, whose fiery image dons scores of power-to-the-people, hipster T-shirts worldwide–yet whose exploits are “known” by a handful in comparison.  

While Soderbergh consciously chose to ‘limit’ his storytelling of the famed revolutionary to his warfare in Cuba and Bolivia, a third big chapter in Che’s underground guerrilla fighting involved Africa–the Cuban intervention in Angola. And it just may be told–were it up to Soderbergh‘s raw drive alone–pending on the success of this ‘experimental’ release of a two-part film. 

“The story of Che in the Congo is absolutely fascinating … We actually sort of sketched an idea for a very small film that took place in the Congo … The glib answer is we didn’t have enough money to do that,” he shared at a recent New York Film Festival press conference. 

But that was neither here nor there when, the other night, Oscar winners Soderbergh and Benicio Del Toro–along with other cast–hopped on the red carpet at their Che N.Y. Film Fest premiere. Newly clean-shaven Soderbergh, who days prior was looking a bit like a bearded-revolutionary himself, was up to his next phase in the process: doing press and getting the word out, before distribution.  

Between development and writing, directing and producing, outside-of-the-box thinker Soderbergh is truly one of the industry’s most prolific media-/filmmakers.  

And while Oscar-winning directors are often, reluctantly, given a ‘time-out’ between their awards-bating crowd-pleasers, Soderbergh‘s ‘downtime’ following Traffic, has been jam-packed with production; namely, continuing to make movies with the likes of Hollywood’s hot list–George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon–in the Ocean’s caper franchise.

As well, Soderbergh‘s slate includes off-beat fare, such as the haunting Bubble–and now Che – Part I: The Argentine, with its companion piece Che – Part II: Guerrilla, which leaves naysayers scratching their heads and wondering about profit–and cinema fans shouting for more of his bold, diverse palette.

“The process of developing and making this film was so extended, we started talking about it when we were working on Traffic. Laura Bickford, who produced Traffic and Benicio and I started talking–so that’s eight years ago.”

The sweeping, Spanish-language combat film whose superb lead, Benicio Del Toro, was awarded Best Actor this year at Cannes, charts the rollercoaster ride taken by ambitious Che, while it meditates on the practice of guerrilla warfare, first in the Cuban Revolution, and then in Bolivia.

Benicio‘s blindly purist and ambitious Che is an asthmatic, ambivalent, half-dreamer/half-doer, displaying some key qualities, that run parallel to Soderbergh‘s die-hard filmmaking self. 

But 4-plus hours of Che Guevara? And planning to release it as a road show? Is Soderbergh really sure about this?

There’s lots of conjecture as to whether or not theater audiences will ‘realistically’ deal with its running time, including from the wry helmer himself, “It’s a lot to ask of someone to throw away an entire day, but I guess my only argument is that, cinematically, we’re making a demand on the audience that’s very similar to the demands that Che made on the people around him.”

He laughs, “It’s a big commitment, and it requires a certain kind of personality to want to experience it like that.” Clearly Soderbergh has chosen to take a leap of faith about the film’s expected audience, holding on to a certain ‘reality’, that some may consider a big risk.

Often referred to as an ‘enfant terrible’, it’s no wonder Steven Soderbergh, one of the brightest cinematic rebels we have, is feverishly reacting to critics, several of whom are responding negatively to his zaftig film–said to have a $60 million dollar budget–to be distributed by IFC, and released for a week in NY/LA for an Oscar-qualifying run.

 Soderbergh‘s critics feel it’s unrealistic for the auteur to expect audiences to endure the lengthy film, among their other gripes.

However, while the visually chaotic, somewhat alienating triptych may not be everyone’s cup of tea, it resonated fiercely with this half-Cuban viewer, who saw it as a intriguing portal into a hard-to-access, iconic, historical figure, who shifted back and forth from medic to fighter. It blossoms as it unfolds.

With his New York Film Festival audience, Soderbergh shared, “One of the African rebels that fought with Che–Victor Dreke–said, ‘Che would rather face a   bullet than reality,’ and it’s a perfect description of him, I think.”

Perhaps Soderbergh and Che Guevara share this common trait: silently calling out for folk to give them a ‘reality check’ as they pursue their necessary missions–but isn’t that what great men–and women–are often made of? Perhaps a T-shirt with Soderbergh will be set for release in 2040.