Che: Part Two
The story so far… Argentine-born Marxist Ernesto "Che" Guevara (Benicio Del Toro) emerged from the victorious Cuban revolution as President Fidel Castro’s most charismatic and dedicated officer.
Picking up eight years after the fall of Batista (and Part One), Part Two controversially elides many of the more problematic elements in Guevara’s story, notably his readiness to purge Cuba of enemies of the revolution. His attempts to ferment Communism in the Congo are merely referenced in passing.
Instead, it’s off to Bolivia, to begin again, as it were. A country of vast impoverishment and resources being mined to fill the coffers of a few super rich, most of them abroad, Bolivia seems ripe for revolution. By transplanting the strategies that worked in Cuba, Che believes that he can kick-start the process. It proves an uphill battle.
They don’t call it “the struggle” for nothing. This companion piece to “The Argentine”, subtitled “The Guerilla”, is about as unromantic, unglamorous a Che movie as you could imagine – a movie investors’ worst nightmare. In this revolution, the battle is most often against starvation and sickness. Communication is piecemeal, the fear of betrayal paramount. Morale is constantly sapping into inertia and isolation, and Che himself fights a losing battle with asthma in the thin mountain air. (This may be the wheeziest movie you will ever see.) When shooting does break out, the enemy is virtually impossible to pinpoint.
The whole 257-minute project has been described, accurately, I think, as a kind of anti-biopic. Steven Soderbergh hasn’t tried to synopsize Guevara’s life into a series of dramatic highlights. Instead, in these two films, he’s given us an immersive – but also cool, objective – account of two defining episodes, the victorious campaign in Cuba, the tragic defeat in Bolivia.
There is nothing to stop you watching Part Two without having seen the first part, but the two films are mirror images of each other, and the first informs and deepens the experience of the second. As the critic J. Hoberman wrote, “Part One puts some hope in hopelessness”.
Serving as his own cameraman under the pseudonym Peter Andrews, and shooting with one of the new RED digital cameras, Soderbergh switches from widescreen in Part Two, and adopts a more ragged, direct, handheld style – the kind of thing that gets called “guerilla filmmaking”. That’s in keeping with the second installments less heroic tenor – except that, paradoxically, there is nothing more heroic than a martyr to the cause.
Accepting his Screen Actors Guild award for Best Actor last month, Sean Penn singled out Benicio Del Toro’s performance here as the most grievous oversight of the awards’ season. It would be a brave man to argue acting with Penn, and you can’t take your eyes off Del Toro for a moment. All the same, I can’t help feeling that the film’s unflinching obsession with deeds, effect, and action at the expense of introspection, cause, and a wider political and historical context explains the omission. It’s a kind of tunnel vision.
Soderbergh and Del Toro have taken Che at his word and honoured his convictions. The movie is grueling and audacious, moving and indisputably narrow.
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