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Carlos/Mesrine/Che Part 1

“Che Part 1” starts with a 3-minute look at a map of Cuba, with different cities and geographical features slowly appearing and disappearing, like one of those displays about local wildlife you can find at certain rest stops.   Opening like this might lead you to believe that it’s going to be important to understand the geography and demographics of Cuba to fully grasp “Che;” that it’s going to be a complicated movie that doesn’t slow down to explain itself, but that’s not really the case.   As with most biopics about soldiers and battles, Ernesto Guevara and friends spend a lot of time camping in the woods, and occasionally fight a battle.   The characters are faithful to let us know just what’s at stake each step of the way, so that 3 minute map seems totally pointless.

“Carlos Part 1,” on the other hand, opens on anonymous boobs.  They belong to a woman who is sleeping with a man who is about to


get blown up by terrorists.  He’s not an important character, and she even less so.   But this opening tells us a lot about the movie we’re watching – it’s going to be about sex and anonymous women.  There actually aren’t very many naked women in “Carlos Part 1,” but we get a good long look at the protagonist’s junk before we know much else about him. He seems to run from one dark-haired beauty to the next, seducing them with pseudo-revolutionary dialogue.  He stashes suitcases filled with guns and fake passports at their houses.  I can’t keep them straight.  Apparently, in the ’70s, all beautiful women wanted to sleep with terrorists, or at the very least, sleep with a terrorist’ s suitcase full of guns under their bed. “Carlos Part 1” reminded me a lot of last year’s “The Baader Meinhoff Complex;” both are about sex, guns, and rock n roll.

“Mesrine Part 1” opens with an extremely fussy and frustrating split screen segment; the segments aren’t synched up, they are often nothing more than different angles on the same scene, and it’s almost impossible to watch all of them or decide which one to watch.   What we are witnessing is Mesrine’s death, before we go back and see how he got there.   The opening made me worry that “Mesrine” was going to be fussily directed and nearly unwatchable, but once it flashes back, it settles into a pretty standard low-level gangster story, covering a lot of the same ground covered by movies like “Goodfellas,” only in France.


“Che” cuts back and forth between the Cuban revolution, where Guevara is an asthmatic comandante, and his 1964 visit to the United Nations, where he is equal parts celebrity and political figure, but not comfortable as either.  We hear footage from an interview that sounds like it’s being conducted by Terry Gross of NPR’s “Fresh Air;” before the end Guevara says he’d rather engage a soldier than a journalist.   He is good with peasants, however, recruiting for the movement as he moves through the Cuban jungle, laying down humanistic policies and teaching people to read while binding up their wounds.  We meet Castro, who is curiously effeminate, with a high, soft voice; every time he appears, it’s with a new job for Guevara – lead this column, be in charge of training new recruits, build a new base over there.  One wonders how Guevara ever gets anything done.

An awful lot happens awfully quickly in “Carlos,” making it hard to attach much meaning to any of it.  There are numerous successful terrorist plots that Carlos is involved with – bombings, kidnappings, an attempt to shoot down an airplane with a rocket launcher.   But while Soderbergh takes the time in “Che” to let the politics develop on their own – we’re shown, rather than told, why the peasants are upset and ready to support a rebel army – “”Carlos” doesn’t seem all that concerned with the politics, or perhaps doesn’t consider them all that important to understanding our protagonist.  It’s telling that there are pictures of Che on the wall in most of the apartments he visits; we begin to understand that Guevara and his revolution have been romanticized and simplified to the point where looking at acting like Che is a great way to bed a girl.


Perhaps the most notable thing about “Mesrine” is the deep, ambitious editing.  He sleeps with a woman, and in the next scene, he’s the father of three children.  He plans a bank robbery, and we see him next being escorted into a jail cell.  I suppose if you’re going to tell the whole story of a man’s life, even over two films, you need to use shorthand.  The pace means that you have to pay attention in order to keep up, but it also makes it hard to connect with the characters, since only one of them – Mesrine – stays on the screen formore than a few scenes at a time.  But we do get glimpses of Mesrine’s character – he’s a romantic, a decent man, a caring father, an angry drunk, a brutally merciless enemy, a quick thinker, and an arrogant, cocksure criminal.  A study in contradictions, this character, which I suppose is why a movie has been made about him.

Steven Soderbergh seems to be setting Che Guevara up as a Messiah figure; it’s hard to point to a foible or flaw in the man in “Part 1.”  He is wise and kind, well spoken but uncomfortable around the corrupt elite, a man of ideas and principles.  The fact that Part 1 is about the successful Cuban revolution and Part 2 about the failed Bolivian one makes me think Soderbergh’s adopted a Greek tragedy structure; Part 1 is “The Rise of Che Guevara”, and Part 2 will be the fall.  This makes it a little easier to bear the hagiographic nature of the film; I expect it will all be torn down before we’re done.

“Carlos” is almost over before it settles in and starts to fell cinematic, but when that finally happens, it makes me hopeful for the next two parts.   The scene that marks the change occurs when Carlos’ terrorist boss is caught by the cops at the airport; he fingers Carlos in an ambiguous way, and the cops take him to a party where Carlos is consorting with friends to get a more positive ID.   The scene is tense and electric; Carlos doesn’t know how much his associate has told the police, and is determined to either outthink or outshoot them.  Things happen quickly after this, and one he has escaped, Carlos is given a big important job by a higher-up in the terrorist organization; the film ends on a cliff-hanger, as he’s gathering his team and preparing for his most difficult mission.  I can’t say that I loved “Carlos Part 1,” but its last half hour made me eager to watch Part 2.

“Mesrine” takes an interesting turn about 2/3 of the way through: after a failed kidnapping ploy in Quebec, Mesrine and his Bonnie are chased across America, finally caught, and brought back by the Mounties.  Now Mesrine has been caught and sent to prison before.  This time though, the media are paying attention, and when they get off the plane in the Great White North, it looks like the Rolling Stones have just arrived.  He flashes smiles, peace signs, cries “Free Quebec!” to a camera, and then is hauled off to prison (where he is tortured to within an inch of his life before escaping.)  Before that plane ride, Mesrine was a talented if petty criminal on his way to nowhere; afterwards, he’s doing the same things, but is on his way to celebrity/notoriety.   Since the second part is titled “Public Enemy No. 1,” I would expect it to explore more deeply not his criminal endeavors, but the media’s response to his crimes.  Stay tuned to see if I’m right.

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