The Importance of Being Ernesto: Soderbergh Unspools Four-Hour-Plus Che to Cheers, Cries of ‘Murderer’

soderbergh121408 The Importance of Being Ernesto: Soderbergh Unspools Four Hour Plus Che to Cheers, Cries of MurdererThere wasn’t a single free seat at the Friday night screening of Che at the Ziegfeld Theatre. A sign at the box office window informed attendees that the historic 1,131-seat theater was completely sold out.

Reviews for Steven Soderbergh’s two-part biopic of Latin American revolutionary and T-shirt model Ernesto "Che" Guevara (played by co-producer Benicio Del Toro) had been split—The Los Angeles Times‘ Sheri Linden called it "extraordinary and challenging"; The New York Times‘ A.O. Scott called it "epic hagiography" and dinged Mr. Soderbergh’s politics as "naïve and fuzzy"—but the crowd seemed fully ready to sit through the complete movie—4 hours and 23 minutes, with a half-hour intermission in between. IFC Films, which is distributing the movies, called this the Special Roadshow Edition—the company handed out lush, heavy-stock programs that looked like aged copies of Paris Match with documentary-style black-and-white photos of Mr. Del Toro and other cast members by Mary Ellen Mark—and would be showing it to audiences in New York and Los Angeles before bifurcating it and making the two sections available in slightly less gluttonous forms at theaters and on digital cable On-Demand service.

One Web site had already offered advice to viewers about when to take bathroom breaks, and judging by the snaking line at the concession stand, rations were being prepared on the fly.

The first image on the screen was a silhouette of Cuba, which was met by the crowd with a raucous cry of "¡Viva, Cuba!" and cheers all around. Throughout the next two hours and six minutes of part one (dubbed The Argentine), the crowd sat in mostly rapt, respectful silence as Che, Fidel Castro (Demián Bichir), Camilo Cienfuegos (Santiago Cabrera), and their scrappy guerrillas took down the Cuban army, intercut with an impassioned speech by Che on the floor of the United Nations and scenes of the fatigues-clad warrior as the awkward guest of honor at a pre-Radical Chic party in Manhattan in 1964, where, in one of the few jokes he makes, he thanks one U.S. official for the Bay of Pigs.

As the first film ended (Spoiler Alert: Castro, Guevara, et al. win), one attendee was overheard saying that it would’ve been a perfect biopic. But that was just the beginning.

As the lights came up and people bolted for the Ziegfeld’s modest-size bathrooms or much-deserved cigarettes outside, the question of how people were holding up—and if they were prepared for the second siege in a long slog—seemed not unreasonable.

"We figured we’d eat first," said David Winn, 47, as he stood with his wife, Kim Campi, 50, by their seats in the upper section of the theater. "’Cause there wouldn’t be much chance to eat during or later."

"Unfortunately, I’m being affected by the heat in here," Ms. Campi said. "It’s stuffy."

Mr. Winn, who appeared to be sweating, agreed, but said, "It is nice to go to a four-hour movie that delves into a lot of detail about military strategy, political strategy, with a crowd that seems to be really pumped up for it."

Nearby, an older man was passing out flyers for a New Year’s Eve celebration of the Cuban Revolution’s 50th Anniversary, a party endorsed by dozens of groups including the Communist Party USA.

Outside, Francisco Taveras, Marmol Ejos, and Ivan Nuñez were grabbing a cigarette and talking about how accurate Mr. Del Toro’s portrayal of Che was. "To me, it was like, ‘Wow,’" said Mr. Taveras, 34, who also noted that Mr. Del Toro’s Argentine accent was perfect.

They all agreed that they were ready for the second half. Was it too long? "I was so into the movie, I wasn’t noticing," said Mr. Ejos, 35. "Everybody’s into it."

"I wish I had better seats, though," Mr. Nuñez said.

Down toward the front of the theater, a 26-year-old culinary student, who like many in attendance, was in a Che T-shirt, was passing the time reading a Bible.

The man, who gave only his first name, Melvin, said he was from the Dominican Republic, and explained his shirt. "I bought it in Mexico," he said. "I don’t like the ones they make here. This one, it’s really nice and comfy."

A reporter wondered if it was strange to read a Bible during the intermission of a movie that valorizes the life of a godless communist like Che. "I don’t see him as a Communist, I just look at him like a person. Even Jesus Christ was a revolutionary, you know?"

There’s a scene in the second half of the film (dubbed The Guerrilla) in which Che—now leading a doomed insurgency in Bolivia—warns his troops that the campaign is going to be difficult, food will be scarce, and that at the end, they will feel like "human waste." By that time, hungry from ill-planned dinners, risking deep vein thrombosis or chair sores, and wishing they’d listened to that bathroom-break advice, viewers would be forgiven for feeling like Che was speaking to them as well.

If The Argentine, with its emphasis on plans, work-arounds, and scrappy determination, was about the making of itself (as Mr. Scott suggested in The Times), then The Guerilla, with its slow, occasionally interminable stretches and unflinching studies of Che’s asthma attacks and various pustulating wounds of his men, seemed to also be about the challenge of watching both films together. Despite the hours crawling by, the heat, and any feelings of restlessness on the part of the audience, there didn’t appear to be any walkouts and when the film ended, the audience rose in a standing ovation.

Afterwards, Mr. Soderbergh and the film critic Glenn Kenny stood at the front of the auditorium and took questions from the crowd as hundreds of camera phones clicked. Showing the sort of self-deprecating humor he exhibited as he accepted the Palme d’Or for sex, lies, and videotape as a 26-year-old wunderkind in 1989 by saying, "Well, it’s all downhill from here," Mr. Soderbergh thanked the crowd at the Ziegfeld for coming and added, "And thank you for staying. … Your commitment to sitting is extraordinary." ("Sequel!" someone shouted from the back of the theater.)

During a sometimes contentious exchange with the crowd—one audience member screamed that Che was a murderer while others shouted him down, calling him a revolutionary (yet another shouted "Go to Miami!")—Mr. Soderbergh alternated between defensiveness and modesty. At times, the director seemed to quake a bit as he stood there, the single spotlight holding him against the mustard-colored velvet curtains like a bug caught by a magnifying glass in the sun. Update, 12:23 p.m.: Video of the exchange can be found here.

When pressed for his own stance on Che—murderer? revolutionary?—the director called himself agnostic. "It doesn’t matter whether I agree with that or not," he said of Che’s politics. He just had to be loyal to the facts, which he insisted was all rigorously sourced. "I can’t be half in and half out."

But if the crowd seemed at times hostile, it was apparently nothing compared to a screening Mr. Soderbergh hosted in Miami earlier in the week: "You can imagine what the response was there," he deadpanned. (Mr. Soderbergh must’ve gone into that particular event with some trepidation; in an interview with Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir that went online Friday, he joked "You know, this could be one of the last interviews I ever give, because I’m going to Miami this week. It was great talking to you!")

The director seemed most at ease—and most animated—when talking about the camera he used to shoot Che, a newer, cheaper high-definition digital camera that he promised would (with practically no pun intended) revolutionize filmmaking. The camera, it’s almost too perfect not to mention, is called the Red.

Of the film’s epic length, he said it was the shortest cut he could possibly have created, but lamented that he hadn’t gone to HBO "and done 10 hours." He also talked about an earlier take on the the same material—Richard Fleischer’s 1969 movie Che! starring Omar Sharif—paying particular attention to Jack Palance’s take on Fidel Castro, "a combination of Groucho Marx and Tony Soprano." (Mr. Soderbergh said that 40 minutes into watching that film, he was forced to turn it off and watch Woody Allen’s Bananas to cleanse his palette.)

At the end, Mr. Soderbergh offered to autograph programs. A crush of people moved towards him, booklets in hand.

An even bigger group made their way towards the exits. They’d all been in the Ziegfeld since before 7 p.m. They were tired and they were hungry. Some legs had fallen asleep and not a few necks were cricked. It had been a long and at times painful campaign, but they were all in one piece and together as a group. It was well after midnight and they were finally free.