Sean Penn defends ‘Che’

Posted by · 2:21 am · July 11th, 2008

Benicio Del Toro in CheBritish film magazine Sight & Sound has a nice new tradition of interviewing the jury president of the most recent Cannes Film Festival, which makes for interesting reading. (Last year’s prez, Stephen Frears, presciently predicted in his interview that “No Country for Old Men” would “do really well,” despite not winning anything at the festival.)

Unsurprisingly, 2008 president Sean Penn is rather more candid in his interview with  Richard T. Kelly. After admitting that he had four clear favourites in the competition (two of which, “The Class” and “Che,” were unanimously awarded their respective Palme d’Or and Best Actor prizes), he then launches into an impassioned defence of Steven Soderbergh’s polarising opus, as well as an attack on the journalists who dismissed it:

Right through the festival I had no awareness of what the ‘buzz’ was, and I shut people down if they tried to talk about movies in front of me. But when I did a little bit of catch-up browsing afterward I read some of the stupidest, ugliest, most cynical responses to what had gone on, and I had the front-seat to be aware of their inconsistencies.

“Che” is a great example. I pray it finds distribution in the four-hour-plus form I saw, because otherwise people will be missing out.  The film-making is stellar: there are so many details in the execution of that huge story. Every sentiment about Guevara I’ve heard passionately expressed when I’ve travelled in Cuba and South America was not only dramatised, but without exposition, seamlessly, fulfilling the narrative. Then you have one of the first tour de force performances in film history that doesn’t rely on the close-up.

This is a film, I later find, that had some negative responses…I was in a jury room of nine people with more expertise in their big toenails than any of the people writing in these papers: nine out of nine wanted to go out and change the world afterwards.

Of course it’s no real surprise that Penn, of all people, should love the film. Even so, those are strong words, and you have to reckon that, when the film eventually sees the light of day in the US, a certain sector of the Academy will feel the same way, particularly with regard to Benicio del Toro’s performance.

Elsewhere in the interview, Penn further discusses the calibre of the Best Actor contest, possibly offering a hint of what his other two favourites may have been:

I know some jurors had disappointments (in the voting); it’s inevitable. I loved Joaquin Phoenix in “Two Lovers.” Even though there was controversy about “Synecdoche, New York” I think everyone agreed that Philip Seymour Hoffman continues to be one of the great actors around. There’s no such thing as ‘Better than true,’ and you get a lot of true performances. But context matters, you can’t help it. There was something about the timing of Benicio del Toro playing Che that was undeniable.

Many more eloquent insights in the interview – it’s not available online yet, but is in the August issue of Sight & Sound.




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10 responses so far

  • 1 7-11-2008 at 2:45 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    “Then you have one of the first tour de force performances in film history that doesn’t rely on the close-up.”

    I love this line.

  • 2 7-11-2008 at 2:57 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Great, isn’t it – that’s what you get when a smart actor can actually articulate the craft.

    I heart Sean Penn.

  • 3 7-11-2008 at 3:14 am

    Herbert said...

    So anyone who doesn’t like Che doesn’t understand it?

  • 4 7-11-2008 at 3:22 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    I don’t think that’s the case Penn is making, Herbert, but there is something to say about the clusterfuck that was every single critic gunning for the effort and projecting their expectations (and woes about the length) rather than giving criticism that was worth a damn.

    I read very few reviews of the film that were worth the price of the paper they were in. A.O. Scott’s somewhat negative assessment was probably one of the only valuable think=pieces in that vein I came across.

    Something wierd happened to journalists on the croisette when this thing dropped. Penn’s right to call them out on it.

  • 5 7-11-2008 at 4:34 am

    Herbert said...

    There’s a fine line between restating the film’s worth in light of its undue reception and justifying its existence by saying “I was in a jury room of nine people with more expertise in their big toenails than any of the people writing in these papers”. I detect a note of condescension.

  • 6 7-11-2008 at 6:29 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Well…I might suggest that he’s right. Though that doesn’t make it any less asshole-ish a statement.

  • 7 7-12-2008 at 4:59 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    He may have phrased it a bit bullishly, but his point stands – I mean, this jury contained Alfonso Cuaron, Marjane Satrapi and Apichatpong Weerasethakul, to name but three. I’d value their input more than that of a trade paper critic.

  • 8 2-22-2009 at 1:38 am

    Mikhail said...

    Well what Sean is saying rather nicely, is that most movie critics are such a bunch of pathetic cynicals types that they are simply unmoved by anything. Further its not difficult to discern their political bias towards Che himself. A ton of them don’t even try to hide it.

    But condescension? movie critics LIVE by that.