Director: Steven Soderbergh
Starring: Benicio del Torro, Demi?n Bichir, RodrigoSantoro, Catalina Sandino Moreno
UK Release date: 20 February 2009
Certificate: 15 (131 mins)
The use of the fade-to-white when a character dies – the cinema screen is overcome not with darkness but with detail-annihilating white light – is a near clichéd technique. Used inappropriately it can act as a last-gasp attempt by a filmmaker to ennoble an otherwise unappealing character. It is testimony to the strength of Che: Part Two that the light that fills the cinema at Guevara’s death feels completely justified.
Part One left us at the end of the successful Cuban revolution. Part Two picks up half a dozen years later: Castro is established in power and for unknown reasons, Guevara has gone missing. What the film does not show is Guevara’s year-long failure to inspire a similar revolution in the Congo, nor his role in combating counter-revolutionaries back in Cuba and speaking against the UN and USA in New York: all this passes under the title of “One Year Later”. This lack of explanation is typical of both parts of the film and is welcome. Curious viewers are driven to their history books and one realises early on that this is a film that calls for the brain to be engaged.
Instead, the main action of the film centres on Guevara’s efforts in Bolivia. Superficially the situation looks the same as that which turned out to be so successful in Cuba. Young men eager to take arms against oppression are thrilled that a hero (even disguised and with a false name) has come to fight alongside them. There is the same focus on practicalities, the camera dwelling on substances and textures: a wooden bench being built for the training camp, soldiers husking corn, huts pasted with mud that hardens in the sun. It’s a delight to take in how this all happened; no need for journeys into psyches or “character motivation” (which so often just gives us the human as a reactive, predictable machine). How people travel and eat and sit with each other becomes the focus. Progress seems at times circular: the terrain changes from mountain to river to dry gorseland but the problems of survival and combat remain the same.
From the beginning there is the sense, even without the historical knowledge, that this country was where he was to die, that this struggle will end badly. Unlike Cuba, the peasants in Bolivia are suspicious of the foreign Guevara, and the Bolivian elite manipulate the media in the same way that Castro and Che did in Cuba. The Bolivian rebels are thought to be rapists and thieves, Godless Communists who would take away what little people have. Guevara’s response is that of the doctor treating the wounds of those who need it, even the peasants who betray his group to the authorities. Once the CIA become involved, one knows that the opposition will be too much for the small group of rebels he has managed to recruit. Throughout the film an uneasy soundtrack of high strings pulses in and out of the sounds of the forest, omens that signal to the audience the inevitability of failure, albeit one that Guevara somehow insulated himself against.
The two films together make up a heroic portrait of the man. At one point he argues with a rebel who is on the verge of quitting: “here it’s necessary to live as if you’ve already died.” It’s a beautiful, tempting figure to believe in, but perhaps the film is too hesitant in revealing any of Guevara’s more controversial actions such as the execution squads run in Cuba to rid the country of dissidents under Castro’s rule. With the inclusion of such actions, we would get a fuller sense of the practicalities and morality of revolution, which would seem to fall within the scope of the film’s ambitions. Instead we are left with two excellent films which together form a piece of art whose content goes beyond the simple biography suggested by their titles.