He's no Angelina

Which of these social-justice films will catch fire? A) 4 1/2 subtitled hours on Che Guevara or B) a Jolie melodrama.

For 12 days each May, Cannes plays host to the world’s most extravagant film festival, and those of us who enter its champagne bubble on the French Riviera become temporarily deluded that nothing on the planet matters more than movies. Yet there’s a special kick in encountering luminaries in Cannes who are not movie stars, as if their real-world celebrity comes in a harder currency. In 2006, Al Gore relaunched his career at the festival for the premiere of An Inconvenient Truth. And this year, two of the more exotic apparitions on the red carpet were American boxing thug Mike Tyson and Argentine soccer god Diego Maradona. As subjects of adoring documentaries, these two fallen superstars both burned out in a cocaine-fuelled blaze of bad behaviour, sought redemption as champions of Third World revolution — and by bizarre coincidence, both now have the face of Che Guevara tattooed on their bodies.

The guy has been dead for 40 years, but in Cannes this year no star was more talked about, or elusive, than Che. The hero of the Cuban revolution, and the world’s most ubiquitous T-shirt icon, is now the subject of a controversial 4½-hour movie by American director Steven Soderbergh.

Che was by far the most hotly anticipated entry among the 22 features in Cannes competition. It arrived near the end of a program that had unfolded like a dire tarot reading for a derelict civilization — from the pandemic horror in Canada’s opening night film, Blindness, to scenarios of deep-rooted corruption and violence in movies like Turkey’s Three Monkeys, Italy’s Gomora, and Hollywood’s Changeling. Che loomed as the salvation card — a $62-million epic by an Oscar-winning director starring Benicio Del Toro as the most enduring and romantic revolutionary icon of the 20th century. As a political figure who found a permanent resting place in pop culture, even Mao is no match. Che is the Communist martyr who became a universal brand, thanks to that famous Alberto Korda photograph. In Soderbergh’s words, “he’s great movie material.” But those expecting a Hollywood spectacle — a Lawrence of Latin America — were in for a shock. Che turns out to be as uncompromising and unfathomable as its hero.

It’s actually two movies that were shot separately. The first tracks the Argentine revolutionary’s triumphant guerrilla campaign in the 1959 Cuban revolution, intercut with scenes of his 1964 visit to the UN. The second part tracks the grim events leading up to Che’s 1967 capture and execution in the Bolivian jungle. The two parts were shown back to back with an intermission and a bagged- lunch ration consisting of half a sandwich. By the end, critics were reeling. Even those proclaiming Che a masterpiece were wondering how this austere marathon of a history lesson, in Spanish with English subtitles, could even be distributed in North America.

Soderbergh has divided his career between boffo Hollywood fare like the Oceans franchise, and arty experiments like The Good German. But Che, a project financed largely in Europe, has no real precedent. It could be seen as the first big-budget Communist movie by an American director, not just for its subject but its spartan style of filmmaking. Sure, Warren Beatty made Reds (1981), but it was richly upholstered with Hollywood romance and heroism. Che is not heroic, or even anti-heroic. Soderbergh has gone so far out of his way to avoid making a conventional biopic (such as his own Erin Brockovich) that he’s deprived his audience of the most elementary pleasures, such as emotional intimacy. Or what studio executives call “movie moments.” Che screenwriter Peter Buchman, whose resumé includes Jurassic Park III, says, “Everywhere I’ve worked in Hollywood they all want more movie moments in the script. I quickly learned working with Steven that a movie moment is a bad thing.”

Che unfolds as a battlefront chronicle etched with meticulous details of military and political strategy. There’s barely a shred of personal detail. Almost two hours go by before we learn that Che has a wife and daughter in Mexico; only minutes before his death in the second movie does he mention that he has five children. That’s all we ever hear of them. Also Soderbergh grants very few close-ups. In a movie that could be called Men With Beards, Che is often just another face in the crowd. In Cannes, Benicio Del Toro won the prize for best actor — well-deserved especially under the circumstances. Del Toro is a cagey actor at the best of times, but the director holds his performance at such an emotional remove it’s virtually clandestine.

While Soderbergh strained to avoid Hollywood cliché, Clint Eastwood — the other Oscar-winning American director premiering a movie in Cannes — heartily embraced it. With Changeling, he canonizes a historical figure with a melodrama that would seem implausible if it weren’t based on a true story. Angelina Jolie stars as proto-feminist heroine Christine Collins, a single mother who battled a corrupt Los Angeles police department in 1928. After her nine-year-old son was abducted, the LAPD claimed to have found him, and when she insisted the boy was not hers, they had her locked up in a mental institution.

That kind of nightmarish scenario, enshrined in immaculate period decor, makes for classic Hollywood melodrama, with no shortage of “movie moments.” And Jolie, who melts acres of makeup with her tears, may well get the Oscar nomination she was denied last year for A Mighty Heart — a grittier true story of a woman grappling with authorities after the abduction of a loved one.

Che and Changeling hail from opposite extremes of American film. Eastwood, 77, carved a unique independence out of the studio system — as a star/director who alternates between commercial movies and more challenging fare such as the slow and subtitled Letters from Iwo Jima. Soderbergh became a poster boy for indie cinema with the 1989 triumph of Sex, Lies and Videotape, which won the Palme d’Or in Cannes. Now he’s happy to play for high stakes in the Hollywood casino with George Clooney and the gang. But his loyalty is still to French director Jean-Luc Godard and the New Wave. Che’s clinical detachment is très Godard. And its premiere coincided with a symbolic anniversary: 40 years ago, and seven months after Che’s execution, the May ’68 riots spread to Cannes and shut down the festival — with Godard and François Truffaut hanging onto the curtain in front of the screen to prevent it from being raised.

Decades after the New Wave galvanized cinema with vérité realism, leftist politics and postmodern cheek, its style has been absorbed into cliché, just as Che’s image has morphed into merchandise. The filmmaking revolution has since migrated to the viral bazaar of YouTube and the populist explosion of digital video. This is a world where content rules. Some of the strongest dramas in Cannes had a real-life visceral impact and relied heavily on non-professional actors. They include the Palme d’Or winner, Entre les Murs (The Class), a modest drama about multicultural friction in a French high-school classroom. The cast is composed entirely of novice actors, including the star, François Bégaudeau, a French teacher who wrote both the script and the memoir on which it’s based. Atom Egoyan’s Adoration, which won the Ecumenical Jury Prize in Cannes, explores cultural stereotypes of burkas and bombs — and while its stars are professionals, Egoyan weaves in scenes of Internet video chats improvised with Toronto high-school students. And Brazil’s Walter Salles — who dramatized Che’s youth in The Motorcycle Diaries (2004) — used mostly non-professional actors in his new film, Linha de Passe, a tale of troubled kids shot guerrilla-style in the asphalt jungle of São Paulo.

But it’s harder to bring guerrilla filmmaking to a period epic, even one about a guerrilla icon. “Che is a difficult subject,” says Soderbergh. “On the one hand, he’s tailor-made for the movies. On the other hand, he means so many different things to so many different people. I come to this as an agnostic. I’m not personally invested in building him up or tearing him down. I’m just compelled by the fact that he twice gave up everything for someone else’s benefit. He walked away from his family, his world, to put his ass on the line.”

Yet nowhere does Che try to unravel that decision or its emotional consequences. Soderbergh could argue that The Motorcycle Diaries already covered Che’s political enlightenment. But the years between the Cuban revolution and Che’s Bolivian misadventure remain blank, including the episode that most tarnishes the heroic image — his orders to execute hundreds of Cuban counter-revolutionaries.

Soderbergh argues that would have required yet another movie. “In answer to the anti-Che people,” he adds, “I know what the arguments are. The bottom line is, there’s no amount of accumulated barbarity I could put on screen that would satisfy them. Most of it revolves around a period we don’t portray, which to them is proof of my sympathies.”

In Cannes, however, most of the controversy about Che circled around style, not politics. Critics from Latin America, which tends to produce films full of passion and lyricism, were dismayed by the movie’s cold rigour. Soderbergh may have repatriated a pop culture symbol to his rightful place in history, but the human being behind the beard and beret remains as inscrutable as ever.

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