CANNES, France - Unless it is one of his "Ocean's Eleven" casino romps, Steven Soderbergh never makes things easy for an audience. With his epic film biography of Latin American revolutionary Che Guevara, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, Soderbergh defiantly has made the story he wanted to see, one that will prove a very tough sell to some audiences.
The two-part saga runs four hours, 30 minutes. It is almost entirely in Spanish, a particular challenge for U.S. viewers who dislike subtitles. It dispenses with many cliches of the biopic, offering virtually no insight into the origin of Che's brand of humanism, instead presenting impressionistic glimpses of Che's idealism in action during the Cuban revolution and his attempt to foment a similar transformation in Bolivia.
Soderbergh was prepared for reporters' skepticism on all fronts at a Cannes news conference Thursday.
On shooting in Spanish:
"You can't make a film with any level of credibility in this case unless it's in Spanish," Soderbergh said. "I hope we're reaching a time where you go make a movie in another culture, that you shoot in the language of that culture. I'm hoping the days of that sort of specific brand of cultural imperialism have ended."
On the length:
"Just the further you get into it, it felt like if you're going to have context, then it's just going to have to be a certain size," Soderbergh said.
On the unconventional structure:
"I find it hilarious that most of the stuff being written about movies is how conventional they are, and then you have people ... upset that something's not conventional," Soderbergh said. "The bottom line is we're just trying to give you a sense of what it was like to hang out around this person. That's really it. And the scenes were chosen strictly on the basis of, 'Yeah, what does that tell us about his character?'"
Starring Benicio Del Toro, the Oscar-winning co-star of Soderbergh's "Traffic," as Guevara, the two films were shot as "The Argentine" and "Guerrilla." The cast includes Franka Potente, Catalina Sandino Moreno and Demian Bichir as Fidel Castro. Soderbergh buddy Matt Damon, part of the star-studded "Ocean's Eleven" ensemble, makes a brief appearance.
"The Argentine" juxtaposes Guevara and Castro's late 1950s triumph in Cuba with flashbacks to their early planning days in Mexico and Che's visit to New York City in the mid-1960s, when he was greeted with condemnation and death threats over the Castro regime's iron-fisted rule.
"Guerrilla" follows the downfall of Guevara as his grass-roots campaign in Bolivia degenerates into a handful of scraggly, starving rebels on the run from vastly superior government forces in the jungle.
Che was executed in Bolivia in 1967. Much of the world now has only a superficial grasp of Che as a symbol of revolution from T-shirts and posters depicting his boldly smiling face.
While it may be hard to persuade audiences to see it a first time, the story requires repeated viewings to really appreciate it, said Del Toro, also a producer on the project.
"It reminds me of the painter who did a portrait of this lady, and when he gave it to the lady, the lady said, `That portrait doesn't look anything like me.' And the painter said, 'Oh, it will,'" Del Toro said. "I really think that eventually, those people, when they see the movie for the third time, they'll start seeing things, they'll start seeing dimensions and angles, maybe a look or a smile or the use of this or a character here and there. ... I know them very well, but I'm still finding stuff."
The films were presented as one entry at Cannes under the name "Che." They played without credits, the way Soderbergh would prefer to see it initially released to general audiences.
"Here's what I would like to do is, every time it opens in a town, let's say, that for a week, you can see it as one movie for the first week, and then you split it off into two films," Soderbergh said. "That's what I would like to do is have a sort of roadshow engagement, no credits ... a printed program that comes with the movie. To me, that would be an event."
How the films actually will play in the U.S. and other countries will depend on deals Soderbergh strikes as he shops it around to distributors at Cannes.
"Che" is competing for the top prize at Cannes, the Palme d'Or, which Soderbergh won with his feature debut, "sex, lies and videotape," in 1989.
While Soderbergh talked seriously and passionately about his desire to make the films, he also had a ready wisecrack for his motivation:
"It's all a very elaborate way for us to sell our own T-shirts," Soderbergh said.