About a month ago, I was fortunate enough to see all four hours of Steven Soderbergh's white whale Che in a single sitting, and yes, the complete, inosculated epic is greater than the sum of its parts. But the Brooks Museum's decision to parse the film and show Part One and Part Two over two weeks is sensible as well, because, no matter how you see it, Che is a pretty weird moviegoing experience. The Argentine (aka Che: Part One) is so formally precise and emotionally opaque that it may need time to sink in.
I didn't know much about Ernesto "Che" Guevara (played here by Benicio Del Toro) before I saw the film. Aside from noticing how often his mug adorns T-shirts and patches worn by grungy, unshaven campus types hawking copies of People's Weekly World on the university commons, I don't know much about Che's politics. And I still don't. However, that may be the movie's point.
Soderbergh's film is not an ethical exploration of guerrilla warfare like The Battle of Algiers, and it's not a history lesson. It's an unusual ménage à trois among Soderbergh, the lightweight Red One digital camera he used while shooting the film, and Soderbergh's love of CinemaScope — that extra-wide 2:35:1 screen ratio introduced with great fanfare in the mid-1950s.
Most movies today are exhibited in a 1:85:1 ratio, but working in CinemaScope's wider horizontal vistas allows Soderbergh to construct elaborately choreographed shots and scenes that play with the positions of nature, architecture, and actors. 'Scope framing also allows the director to revisit the kooky practice of "clothesline staging," where actors plant themselves like fence posts across the screen and talk to each other's profiles and backs, like they're part of a conga line. It sounds crazy, but it ends up looking like some kind of pure cinema. The care taken to record every turn of the landscape, every bundle of peasants, and every city street under siege is obvious and touching, undercutting the feeling that every scene (long marches, midnight strategy sessions, pitched battles) suggests a fussy, pre-planned photo op.
There's a businesslike, robotic crispness to the images that respects avant-garde cinema's emphasis on form, light, color, and space. If you can settle into its cold, classical rhythms, its audacity is hypnotic.
The last word of The Argentine belongs to Che, and it both sums up the film and offers a suitable tease for next week's finale at the Brooks. Che calls the revolutionary aftermath "unbelievable." Wait until you see what happens next.
Che, Part One (The Argentine)
Memphis Brooks Museum of Art
Sunday, March 1st
5 p.m., $10