Friday, January 08, 2010

Video recommendation: Che!

No, not Steven Soderbergh's 2008 biopic. This is a 1969 film starring Omar Sharif as Che Guevara.

I didn't buy it for Omar Sharif, although I've been a fan of his since seeing Dr. Zhivago in high school -- in the Russian literature bloc of my World Literature class, we read Solzhenitsyn but watched Pasternak -- I bought it for ... get this ... Jack Palance as Fidel Castro. I just couldn't stand not to see what that was like.

Before I go any further, rental/purchase details: It costs $2.99 to rent for on-demand viewing from either iTunes or Amazon, but if you want to buy it, Che! is cheaper ($5.99 to Amazon's $9.99). I get a commission from Amazon (and this is my first chance to test out the "new Blogger"/Amazon integration gizmo), but I don't want to rip anyone off here.

Brief review after the jump.

I was pleasantly surprised: Che! is not a panegyric.

The film moves back and forth (using Old Reliable, the "interviews with actors pretending to be people who knew him" device) on the matter of his personal character, from "Che taught me to read and write" to "the bastard -- he murdered my brother and hundreds of other decent Cubans," and everything in between. It opens with his arrival in Cuba and ends with his death in Bolivia.

The overall portrayal is (rightly) negative: Portrait of a man increasingly consumed, to the point of dementia, by his revolutionary fervor, evolving from idealist to martinet to murderer, completely unable to understand near the end why the peasants of Bolivia won't rally to his banner. The crushing scene immediately preceding his death should be required viewing for anyone who contemplates imposing revolution from above or beyond on "the people" -- any people, anywhere -- at bayonet point.

In terms of both dramatic stylings and cinematic production values, Che! is 40 years old and it shows. Sharif and Palance are in their element there -- melodramatic gesticulations! Pre-CGI explosions! -- and they both turn in worthy performances.

Che! is not going to be to everyone's taste, but if you find the man and his milieu interesting at all, you probably won't want your 96 minutes back.

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