One of the most divisive movies to play the festival circuit last year was Steven Soderbergh’s 4.5-hour biopic of T-shirt icon Che Guevara starring Benicio Del Toro.

The massive film was impossible to ignore, but some felt the butt-numbing length too much to take and were unable to appreciate the subtle character examination that the film provides. However, the filmmakers themselves are unapologetic for Che’s length, saying it’s what this epic story demanded.

“My attitude at the end of the day is that some books are 180 pages and some books are 650 pages. Every once in a while if you’re going to do any sort of detail you just have to do it this long,” Soderbergh told the press at the Toronto International Film Festival.

The project was in development for years with all the major players attached. It was a difficult undertaking, but one that the director and star found impossible to resist, even if they weren’t particularly familiar with the subject matter.

“I knew a little about Che. Not much, but thought it could be an interesting story with many dimensions,” said Del Toro, with Soderbergh quickly adding: “I felt obligated to make it and that’s different than wanting to make it.

“I had a feeling even at the beginning that it was going to be difficult. But I felt like when these sort of opportunities present themselves, if you say ‘No’ then I don’t know what you’re doing making films.”

However, Soderbergh and Del Toro’s lack of familiarity turned out to be a virtue, as discovering who Che was and why he is so important became the subject of the film.

According to the director, “The bottom line is that we wanted to know, like a lot of people ‘Why?’ Why is this iconic image still plastered on everything from tote bags to coffee mugs to beer bottles? Why 40 years after this guy’s death is this image still resonating, even when people don’t know what it represents? It was an opportunity for us to understand as much as anything.”

The film probes the motivations and actions that made Guevara famous, but never sentimentalizes or aggrandizes the controversial figure. The film, which is now in two parts, simply isolates his triumphant revolution in Cuba along with his failed revolution in Bolivia to show how easily the techniques and ideals that served him so well could fail without the right circumstances. It’s a complicated portrayal that provides no easy answers, but then there was no better way to tell such a difficult tale.

As Del Toro put it, “I like to quote what Steven said to me when we started. I was like a deer in the headlights and he said, ‘It’s impossible to play him or to do this film. But we can try.’”

• Both parts of Che begin screening in Toronto next Friday.

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