Che: Part Two (15)

Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Written by Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara (diary), Peter Buchman, Benjamin A. van der Veen (screenplay)

Screening at FACT from 21st February 2009

From the opening scenes of this film, it is clear that Steven Soderbergh has taken a very different approach in the second part of his Che Guevara biopic. We see Fidel Castro (Demián Bichir), reading aloud Che’s last letter, explaining why he has left his position in Cuba and is seeking to train and fight with guerilla movements in other countries, to overthrow their US-backed regimes. Why? Because “in a revolution one wins or dies”. Guevara sensed an isolated victory in Cuba was not enough. Soderbergh is providing the sense of motivation he neglected in Part One.

A year on, and Benicio Del Toro’s Che (or rather ‘Ramón’) arrives undercover in Bolivia. His attempts at revolution in Congo had already failed spectacularly, yet he believed he would have more success struggling against the government of René Barrientos.

Anyone who saw the first instalment might expect that they’d be in for another two hours of carefully re-enacted battle scenes, but this is not the case. Though the film progresses at a snail’s pace, this turns out to be a great strength. Whereas, scene to scene, it may seem like very little is happening, small but significant events are taking place – a tired glance here, a raised word there – like pressure building up, which will explode onto the ‘surface’ of the plot.

The end result is a much fuller picture of what it must have been like to be involved, and a much deeper representation of the social context in which it all took place. Soderbergh makes excellent use of dilemmas that characters are confronted with. In real life, these were pivotal moments in the struggle, where people made key decisions based on ideas of material strength and weakness. Should the peasant support the guerillas who promise him better social conditions, or the government who threaten violence against him and his family? Should the Communist Party leader defy Moscow and back Guevara? Should the President call a state of emergency and announce that Guevara is leading the revolt, and risk losing popular support?

Ultimately, Guevara’s army was defeated, he was executed, and his theory that a small, dedicated group of men could lead a guerilla revolution without waiting for revolutionary conditions amongst the mass of the population was dealt a deathblow. Still – even marketed by the profit system as a heroic, miraculous, Christ-like individual – Guevara continues to inspire millions around the world, who long to fight back against oppression here and now, without waiting another moment.

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