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CANNES, France (Reuters) - Benicio del Toro plays Argentine guerrilla Ernesto "Che" Guevara in an epic four-hour double bill which looks first at his role in the Cuban uprising before moving to his campaign and eventual death in Bolivia.
Steven Soderbergh directed the Spanish-language movie "Che," which may be released in theatres in two parts titled "The Argentine" and "Guerrilla," although he would also like to give movie goers the chance to see them together.
Soderbergh, who won the Cannes film festival's Palme d'Or for best film in 1989 with "Sex, Lies & Videotape," said he was fascinated by the character of Guevara, who has gone on to become a symbol of rebellion the world over.
"Cuba is less of an issue for me than Che," he told reporters on Thursday in Cannes, where "Che" is in the main competition of 22 entries.
"I think he's great movie material is really what it comes down to. He had one of the most fascinating lives I can imagine in the last century."
Soderbergh originally intended to make a film only about Guevara's bid to stoke rebellion in Bolivia, but felt audiences needed to know about what happened in Cuba first.
"To understand why he thought they could win in Bolivia you needed to see what happened in Cuba, because the odds were similar at a certain point."
For Oscar-winning del Toro, who was born in Puerto Rico, playing the idolized idealist was a daunting task.
"As I went into the research of the character I became more and more like a deer in the headlights, more afraid of approaching him because I kept learning," he said.
The first half of "Che" jumps between Guevara's involvement in the Cuban uprising that helped Fidel Castro seize power in 1959, their first meeting in Mexico and Che's visit to the United States in 1964 when he addressed the United Nations.
Del Toro portrays Guevara as a courageous man of unswerving principle who inspires fear and respect among his men and ordinary people and administers often brutal justice.
After Cuba, the Argentine-born doctor set off for Congo to foment revolution there, but his African campaign failed.
Soderbergh picks up Guevara's life again in Bolivia, where he traveled dreaming of a Cuban-style uprising.
Heavily bearded and exhausted, Guevara looks increasingly isolated as, afflicted by crippling asthma, his small band of followers are gradually picked off and the peasants he sought to recruit turn their backs on him.
Guevara was finally caught and executed by CIA-backed Bolivian soldiers after an interrogation on October 9, 1967. His body was flown to Vallegrande and put on display in a hospital before being buried in an unmarked grave.
Early reaction to "Che" has been mixed, with reviews questioning its length and Soderbergh's apparent determination to avoid heightening the drama through Hollywood conventions.
When asked about such criticism, Soderbergh responded: "I find it hilarious that most of the stuff being written about movies is how conventional they are, and then you have people ... they are upset that something's not conventional."
Also screening on Thursday in Cannes was French competition film "La Frontiere de l'Aube" ("Frontier of Dawn").
Shot in black and white by French director Philippe Garrel, it shows a love story tipping into madness and stars the director's son Louis Garrel and Laura Smet, daughter of French rocker Johnny Hallyday.
(Additional reporting by James Mackenzie, editing by Paul Casciato)
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