Steven Soderbergh's four-hour Che Guevara biopic is being released in two halves in Britain, with the second segment due in February.
But anyone who goes to see Che: Part One without any prior warning might guess that it's not the first of two instalments, but the fourth of eight. It's like watching The Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers, only more so. You feel as if you've missed the beginning of the story, and you know you're not going to find out what happens at the end.
Soderbergh and his screenwriter, Peter Buchman, make a point of rejecting the conventional Hollywood biopic structure, which is probably for the best. There's no need to see Ernesto Guevara (Benicio Del Toro) as a schoolboy, coughing and spluttering on his first cigar. On the other hand, there's no need for Soderbergh and Buchman to go to the opposite extreme. Much as The Passion Of The Christ neglected to mention that Jesus might have done anything more miraculous than inventing the dining table, Che: Part One tells us almost nothing about where Guevara came from, or how he was radicalised, or whether he had any military training. It's an hour and a half before we hear that he has a wife and daughter in Mexico.
Most of the film is set during one campaign in 1957 and 1958. The Cuban Revolution is gathering steam, and Guevara is hiking with his band of merry men through the mountains, recruiting peasants and dodging Batista's forces. In scenes that are all too reminiscent of I'm A Celebrity..., the rag-tag rebels sit around camp fires, giving each other nicknames, and occasionally carrying out the equivalent of a Bushtucker Trial: executing traitors and raiding enemy bases.
It's always watchable, and it often looks stunning. Soderbergh – who doubles as the director of photography – uses a state-of-the-art digital camera to pick out every leaf and vine in the jungle with a clarity worthy of a David Attenborough series. But Guevara himself is never seen so clearly. Soderbergh keeps his distance at all times, resisting close-ups, intimate conversations, or anything that might have revealed more about the man beneath the beret. The sole discernible character development is the growth of his hair, from a short back and sides in an early scene to the leonine look he wears on a million students' posters.
As for historical context, the meagre portions we get are spooned out by some flash-forwards to 1964, when Guevara addresses the United Nations in New York. Shot in a grainy black-and-white, handheld style, these sequences seem to be modelled on D A Pennebaker's Bob Dylan documentary Don't Look Back with Guevara as the beatnik rock star freaking out the squares as he's shuttled from party to interview to public appearance.
As a pastiche of 1960s cinematography, these interludes are perfect, but they leave you with the same misgiving as most of Soderbergh's work – that he's far more interested in film techniques than he is in what he's filming.