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The method behind the myth

Some last-minute sentimentality mars an otherwise fresh take on the biopic

<strong>Che: Part Two

Steven Soderbergh's film about the transformation of Ernesto "Che" Guevara from humble medic to revolutionary is characterised by some idiosyncratic, even perverse, artistic choices. The picture's cool tone, observational but not analytical, turns down the heat on any insurrectionary fervour the audience might feel. The screenplay (by Peter Buchman and Benjamin A van der Veen, adapted partly from Guevara's Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War and The Bolivian Diary) dissects, in forensic detail, a few formative episodes between Che's introduction to Fidel Castro in 1955 and his murder by the CIA in 1967, but glosses over anything that might tarnish its subject, give or take the odd impromptu execution.

And Benicio del Toro, as Che, is obscured from view more than any lead actor since Claude Rains in The Invisible Man. Directors have been frogmarched off film sets for not giving the star enough close-ups, but del Toro (who co-produced the picture) clearly has no problem with portraying the method behind the Che Guevara myth, even if that means the back of his head gets more love from the camera than do his docile features.

Either the director or his distributor has seen fit to carve this 257-minute work in half, but surely the sourness of Part Two is best appreciated in the immediate glow of victory and idealism with which Part One ends. Not that any kind of “previously on Che” recap is required to bring viewers of Part Two up to speed, since Soderbergh concentrates this time solely on Che’s mission to incite revolution in Bolivia, finding in it echoes of the Cuban campaign to depose Fulgencio Batista that made up most of Part One. Once again, the focus is placed so intently on the fine print of revolution that the film has the air of a "How to" manual for aspirant guerrillas of etiquette as much as ideology.

If ever you wondered what an iconic revolutionary does all day, Che provides the answer: he dashes off correspondence to Sartre and Bertrand Russell, sorts out the rosters and the rations, finishes a bit of needlework. To call the film meticulously detailed would be an understatement. A scene in which Che is introduced to the recruits who will fight alongside him goes on for ever as he moves along the line, glad-handing like the Queen after a Royal Variety Performance. "I'm Ramón." "Hello, Ramón." "I'm Willy." "Hello, Willy." You pray that no one has a speech impediment.

The cumulative effect of this is strangely transfixing; it's like a Jacques Rivette film in combat fatigues. Soderbergh knows how to shoot fluid, compelling action - the storming of Santa Clara at the end of Part One, and the final battle here, take their cue from the bare-bones approach of Ken Loach's Land and Freedom, another film that tried to wring triumph from a thwarted revolution. But he lends these set pieces no more or less emphasis than the squabble in Part One over whose turn it was to guard the camp, or the curing of a child's eye infection in Part Two.

What is refreshing about Che is its lack of deference to the rules of either biopics or war movies. Soderbergh, serving as his own cinematographer with a lightweight digital video camera, likes nothing better than when things go awry (as befits a self-professed fan of Mike Nichols's Catch-22). One of Che's men loses his glasses during a shoot-out, while another flees in panic. My favourite moment occurs during the climactic struggle with the US-trained Bolivian army, when the frantic gestures of one revolutionary are entirely lost on his compadre. "He's saying either that he wants us to retreat, or to move towards him," says the flummoxed fighter as the hand signals become a blur.

Soderbergh has done such a rigorous job of keeping the audience at arm's length, and resisting the lure of cheap emotion, that it is frustrating to find him changing tack in the closing scenes. After all those hours of maintaining a chaste shooting style, even to the point of risking boring the audience, he switches to a subjective shot from Che's point of view at the moment of death.

Che is an impressive work, vast in length but stubbornly small and un-epic. This last-minute failure of nerve, though, is no less jarring than if a psychiatrist ended a course of treatment by offering the patient a big, soppy hug.

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Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.