Blu-Ray Review: Criterion Version of Steven Soderbergh’s Riveting ‘Che’

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CHICAGO – Steven Soderbergh’s “Che” is one of the most underrated and misunderstood films of the ’00s. It features not only one of the best performances of the last several years from the great Benicio Del Toro but this challenging biopic should have been embraced by all the critics and audience members who are constantly lamenting the lack of filmmakers willing to take risks and provoke discussion. Blu-Ray Rating: 5.0/5.0
Blu-Ray Rating: 5.0/5.0

With an amazing output in just three months - “Che,” “The Girlfriend Experience,” and “The Informant!” - arguably the most essential American filmmaker continues to prove that great auteurs need not come with standard expectations. His most challenging film, the two-part, four-hour “Che,” has been inducted into the Criterion Collection and the result is one of the best Blu-ray releases of the last twelve months. Only the video transfer is mildly disappointing, but that’s likely un-fixable. More on that later, but everything else about this two-disc release from the excellent, detailed special features to the film itself makes it a must-own.

“Che” is not intended to be easily disposable entertainment. Soderbergh and writers Peter Buchman and Benjamin A. van der Veen don’t believe that someone with as complex a life as Ernesto ‘Che’ Guerava can be captured in the typically generic structure of the biopic. And they truly do try to capture what it’s like to be in the company of Che with their daring film.

Che was released on Blu-ray and DVD on January 19th, 2010.
Che was released on Blu-ray and DVD on January 19th, 2010.
Photo credit: Courtesy of the Criterion Collection

Del Toro plays Che during two of the most important parts of the cultural icon and revolutionary leader’s life. The first half of “Che,” sometimes referred to and shown as “The Argentine,” detailed Che’s arrival in Cuba and the overthrow of the Batista regime with Fidel Castro. We meet him on his way to Cuba, intercut with footage of a speech he gave at the UN at the height of his counter-culture fame. Che is presented as a natural leader, someone easy to get behind and follow, something many, many men did.

The second half of the film, sometimes referred to as “Guerilla,” is the mirror image of the success and fame of the first half and details Che’s final days in Bolivia. After Castro was put in power, Che went to Bolivia to see if lightning would strike twice with another revolution. It didn’t and he died there.

Che was released on Blu-ray and DVD on January 19th, 2010.
Che was released on Blu-ray and DVD on January 19th, 2010.
Photo credit: Courtesy of the Criterion Collection

Instead of the standard biopic beats, Soderbergh is trying to recreate the experience of actually being in the presence of one of the most recognizable figures of the twentieth century. He consciously avoids turning Che into a hero. In fact, it’s easy to read the two films as a commentary on the inevitable failure of what Che believed in, Marxism. The revolution that worked in Cuba failed miserably in Bolivia. This is not a hero’s story. But it is one of the most mesmerizing and accomplished works from one of our best directors.

And Del Toro’s riveting performance drives it all. It is a remarkable emotional and physical transformation that easily carries the weight of Soderbergh’s daring and complex film on its shoulders.

When it was released in Chicago theaters a year ago, I expected arthouse audiences, the ones who always complain to me about the lack of challenging fare at the theater to give it a chance. Sadly, the very expensive film was largely ignored, making less than $2 million at the worldwide box office. I still think “Che” will grow in esteem over the next few years (although the YEAR between theatrical and DVD was a mistake). This is a movie that demands discussion and those that see it will fuel that conversation with word of mouth. Those can be hard films to find an audience at first (especially when it takes a whole day in theaters) but often connect on the home market.

It helps that the film has been inducted into The Criterion Collection, although a little controversy over their deal with IFC Films that allowed many of the studio’s recent output to bear the best name in DVD production has sullied the inclusion a little bit. Hopefully, that won’t allow people to miss this incredible box set, complete with Criterion’s perfect selection of special features.

As for the technical specs, the video transfer has been approved by Soderbergh, but I’m not sure the RED camera work is the best for HD. The interior scenes look flatter than Blu-ray buyers might expect. Just know that it has more to do with Soderbergh’s love affair with his new camera and not the actual transfer. And the exterior shots look amazing.

Special features include a commentary on both films by Jon Lee Anderson, author of “Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life,” the great documentary “Making Che,” deleted scenes, theatrical trailer, interviews with participants in and historians of the Cuban Revolution and Che’s Bolivian campaign, “End of a Revolution,” “Che and the Digital Cinema Revolution!,” and a booklet featuring an essay by critic Amy Taubin.

‘Che’ is released by The Criterion Collection and stars Benicio Del Toro, Demian Bichir, Rodrigo Santoro, Franka Potente, and Catalina Sandino Moreno. It was written by Peter Buchman and Benjamin A. van der Veen and directed by Steven Soderbergh. It was released on Blu-ray and DVD on January 19th, 2010. It is not rated. content director Brian Tallerico

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