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Cannes '08: Pete Hammond's Notes on a Season: 'Che' premieres to big anticipation, mixed reaction

May 21, 2008 |  5:35 pm

Che_soderbergh_2

You could have flown from L.A. to New York in the time it took from entrance to exit for the eagerly awaited world premiere of Steven Soderbergh's epic about Latin American revolutionary leader Che Guevara. As the director and his cast, led by star Benicio Del Toro, arrived  for the nearly five-hour experience (including intermission), a large red banner reading "Che" was hoisted from a window across the street by cheering supporters.

The line to get into the 6:30 screening seemed more intense and long than any other this week, and the theater filled up early. Among those in the audience were Cannes '08 fixtures, Mike Tyson and Sean P. Combs. Inside, even a few people who made it into the theater had to be turned back when there wasn't a seat to be had in the 2,400  seat Grand Lumiere (in the balcony, sections, not seats are reserved).

There was some question whether Soderbergh would even be able to get the film ready in time, and in fact, the plan is that once it sells to a domestic distributor, it will be released as two separate movies a la Clint Eastwood's "Flags Of Our Fathers"  and "Letters From Iwo Jima" a couple of years ago. The first part, "The Argentine" is more expository. The second part, "Guerrilla," seemed to actually play better from where I was sitting. Early reviews are all over the map.

Unfortunately, at least in the balcony which is out of the sight line where the filmmakers sit, the crowd noticeably thinned after intermission. A little less than half the seats in my 50 seat or so section were suddenly empty along with dozens of others scattered throughout the upper regions. Perhaps those moviegoers had dinner reservations somewhere? Or maybe they just knew how it was going to end.

We've said it before and we'll say it again: You can't please everyone in Cannes.

Nevertheless around 11:30pm Soderbergh and company received about a seven minute standing ovation, and believe me after five hours he was gonna get a "standing o" no matter what.

t's nice to see a director like Soderbergh who could just float from one "Oceans" to another continue to take risks and experiment and the audience, not matter which side you are on, seemed to appreciate that.

For a reported budget though of $60 million-plus for what is essentially an art film along the lines of something Terrence Malick normally makes, Soderbergh's epic is deliberate and low key. Del Toro completely inhabits the role as you might expect. He was born to play Che. But immediately afterward one distributor proudly related that he stayed awake thru the whole thing but told us it's a very tough sell at that price.

"Che," if it indeed remains split into two parts, is a true marketing challenge for whoever picks up domestic rights and most of the buyers were there last night to check it out for the first time. The press did not get their normal pre-screening, instead seeing it next door at the same time. At least they were served sandwiches and water.

With the hefty pricetag, it's impractical but the experience of "Che" could work well as a TV mini-series along the lines of AMC's big emmy winner,"Broken Trail" last year which was similarly paced but scored big audiences and awards attention.

Award season chances clearly depend on critical reaction and how it is presented. Best shot would be for Del Toro who might stand a chance in the actor race depending on which of the two films they push. Overall at this juncture it could be a tough academy sell but the film itself may still be a work-in-progress. There were no credits.

After the film was over, the film's creative team headed up to Murano, a villa in the hills for a sit down dinner and afterparty with other revelers supposedly shuttled in (some were complaining the shuttles were slow to show). We didn't hang.

Other "Che" first nighters immediately exited the theatre and gathered around TV screens in the Palais to watch the soccer finals. 

"Che" may have been the most awaited cinematic experience of the festival, but hey, nothing compares to Manchester United.

-- Pete Hammond

Photo: Director Steven Soderbergh, actress Catalina Sandino Moreno and star Benicio del Toro. Wire Image.

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