Going hungry with Che

Slept in for a change. The Cannes programmers gave us a break today, clearing out the schedule to leave our palates fresh for this evening’s premiere of Che, Steven Soderbergh’s four-hour-plus epic about Che Guevara. For once it was sunny. I was tempted to hit the beach, and almost did. But dark rooms exert an addictive pull in this place, along with the fear of missing something unmissable. So this afternoon I caught the final market screening of Hunger, which opened the Un Certain Regard sidebar last week. It’s a much-buzzed feature debut from British visual artist Steve McQueen (you think he’d at least call himself Steven to avoid confusion with the dead actor on IMDB.)

Hunger is a tough film, highly graphic drama about the 1981 IRA hunger strike in Northern Ireland’s Maze Prison. It begins with a no-wash strike—a harrowing, maggot-ridden ordeal of prisoners wearing nothing but overgrown beards who are beaten and tortured in cells while they smear the walls with their own waste. (Yet another example of the bizarre sanitation theme that flows like an open sewer through this year’s Cannes program). The filth and torture sequences, which are almost wordless, are followed by a long, uncut stretch of staccato dialogue between IRA militant Bobby Sands and a priest trying to talk him out of the hunger strike. That scene is a theatrical tour de force. Then we come to the hunger strike itself. It transpires as an ethereal trip into a palliative afterlife, featuring actors with gaping sores who are so alarmingly skinny they could teach the cast of Schindler’s List a thing or two about dieting.

But I had to leave Hunger before the end. I was famished, and desperate to pick up a slice of quiche to-go before heading into Che marathon.

Starring Benicio Del Toro, Che was presented in two parts, two separate movies really, with a 15-minute intermission. The dialogue is almost all in Spanish, with English subtitles. The first part plays like a war movie, and traces Che’s guerrilla campaign through the jungles of Cuba, intercut with black-and-white re-enactments of his visit to the United Nations in N.Y. The second part plays like a thriller, and follows his disintegrating campaign in Bolivia up to his death, another saga of starvation and sickness. It’s hard to imagine either part working without the other. They’re a matched set of victory and defeat, an ascent to revolutionary heaven followed by the descent into hell. The story of defeat is more compelling.

At half time, the lobby was littered with little shopping bags marked CHE, each containing a bottle of water and half a sandwich consisting off a flattened leaf of lettuce and virtually nothing else between slices of squished white bread. An attempt to simulate jungle rations?

A few observations on Che:

• Soderbergh goes so far out of his way not to make a conventional Hollywood biopic that he offers not a shred of personal back story, or front story. Just meticulous history and warfare.

• No one has sex of any sort, or even talks about it, during the entire four hours—except a deserter who rapes a peasant girl off screen. But the men smoke a lot of cigars.

• About an hour a three quarters into the movie, it’s casually mentioned that Che has a wife and daughter in Mexico; moments before his death in the second movie he mentions that he has five children. That’s all we ever hear of them.

• There are virtually no close-ups in either movie. It’s hard to find Benicio Del Toro’s eyes. Everyone has overgrown beards, and things can get confusing.

• For no apparent reason, except to provoke a titter of recognition, Matt Damon pops up in a cameo, speaking Spanish.

• Che is a severe asthmatic. At one point, as he lies gasping from breath in the Bolivian jungle, he says, “All of us have made mistakes but I made the worst mistake when I didn’t bring my medicine along.” So if he’d taken a puffer into the jungle, instead of cigars, could that have turned the tide of history? Clearly he would have been better off making revolution in a desert climate.

• Che’s screenwriter is Peter Buchman, whose previous major credit is a jungle tale of a different colour— Jurassic Park III

I don’t have any video from my own camera today, but here’s some official footage of what was happening at Che‘s red carpet premiere:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jyqOByAB76k




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