Che: Part One

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Director Steven Soderbergh; Release date: out now

In 1960 Cuba's rebel leaders were fighting for their political lives, a year after ousting US stooge President Batista.

Sabotage took many forms. On 5 March the arms-laden La Coubre exploded in Havana dock, killing hundreds. At the next day's funeral gathering a young photographer, Alberto Korda, captured an image that would become one of the century's greatest.

Ernesto "Che" Guevara's portrait spoke volumes to subsequent generations and was reproduced billions of times worldwide.

In 1969 Richard Fleischer directed a Hollywood biography attempt, Che!, with Omar Sharif in the lead role.

But Walter Salles' unconnected 2004 film, The Motorcycle Diaries, effectively forms the first part of a biographical trilogy, which Steven Soderbergh now continues with the second and third instalments.

The two parts are conceived and filmed as a 262-minute meditation on Che's death in Bolivia in October 1967. Soderbergh worked with producer Laura Bickford and lead actor Benicio del Toro, as he did in Traffic, his drug-world drama of 2000. There are similarities of narrative shape, with cross-cutting of time periods coded as black and white or colour footage.

It has opened as a single four and a half hour length film in the US, in time for the 2009 Oscars, but it will be seen most commonly in two parts.

Shot largely in Mexico, the first part starts with Ernesto holed up in that country. Meeting Cuban exile dissidents led by one Fidel Castro, Che returns with them to fight through the country from the east, losing stalwarts but recruiting locals en route. It concludes with Batista's flight.

We watch a man for whom the key to revolution is love - of freedom and of the people. Selflessness, democratic discipline and humility rule. Rambo this is not.

Shifting forward repeatedly to his 1964 trip to the United Nations in New York, the film benefits from del Toro's physical resemblance to Che.

Cynics may claim that Soderbergh is damning socialist struggle as idealistic, utopian and doomed.

But I expect this movie and the second part - out next month - will become as much of an attraction in our turbulent times as the ubiquitous merchandise bearing that iconic stare has been for the past 50 years.

That's because Che - man, movie and T-shirt - speaks of hope for a better world.