Sunday, January 04, 2009

time out: che

The only other film I've seen Benicio del Toro in is Traffic, and it was only when I got home that I realised that like Che, it had also been directed by Steven Soderbergh. There are some striking parallels between the two films. Both are about the relationship between the US and a Latin American country - Mexico in Traffic and Cuba in Che. In both films, the director uses a light filter to distinguish the action in different settings. In Traffic, Mexico looks like a normal place, while the US scenes are shot with tungsten film with no filter, for a cold monochromatic blue feel. In Che, Cuba looks like a normal place, with the US scenes all shot in black and white with a vintage feel to them as if you were looking at old newsreel. I think this is about more than simply distinguishing story lines to help the viewer along. It's no coincidence that the US looks like an artificial, manipulated place in both films, with the other location coming across as warmer, multicoloured, human. The point is perspectival: from the perspective of Mexico/Cuba, this is how the US looks.

del Toro is fabulous. This is an older Che than Gael Garcia Bernal in The Motorcycle Diaries, but somehow also a more credible one. It's possible to see how someone like this (warm, humane, cold, ruthless, driven, dedicated) could have become one of the leading ideologues of one of the world's most successful revolutions. I like that scenes are often accompanied by a voiceover reading from Che's writing on guerrilla war, demonstrating that warfare of this kind is not only a military activity but also a political and intellectual one. Perhaps the line that stays with me most through the whole film is his reply to a reporter's question: what is the one quality that a revolutionary should have? Answer: love. (I'd highly recommend the section on Che in Robert Young's magisterial Postcolonialism: an historical introduction.)

Che is a deely polarising figure and there will inevitably be reviewers who think that the film is too sympathetic to him. I don't think the film sets out to provide a disassionate balance sheet. It's more like an immersion experience: what was it like to be in the Cuban foco? What sort of person joined it and why? And once you did, what did you need to do to win?

Oh and I love that the best actor award at Cannes, which del Toro won, is called the Prix d'interpretation masculin.

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