The two films that make up Che, an epic biopic directed by Steven Soderbergh and starring Benicio Del Toro, are inseparable yet not necessarily co-dependent. Due to the very nature of the expensive, expansive production that birthed them, it is unsurprising that they have been marketed as a single entity, yet exhibited and released individually. As pieces of cinema, they are two very different creatures, adapted from two distinct sources. They even have their own titles. Although they should still be watched together, they have been released as two DVDs. This review is of Che Part 2: Guerilla. Read the review of Part 1: The Argentine here.
Che Part 2: Guerilla is, on a very basic level, a harder film to sink into than The Argentine. Whereas the first part had the benefit of its dual narrative structure, which gave it a feeling of space, context and room to breathe, Part Two is single-minded in its storytelling. After a quick series of scenes in Castro’s Cuba, and La Paz, Guevara joins up with the Bolivian revolutionaries in the jungle. For the most part, the film retains this perspective, doggedly mimicking the stifling drudgery of the guerillas’ progress.
Che’s final campaign in Bolivia, documented in his Bolivian Diary, was crucially different from the Cuban Revolutionary War. It was almost doomed from the start, with the various left-wing political groups being disparate and unwilling to support armed action. Likewise, the local population, in Che’s mind the source of any revolution’s power, proved unreliable and suspicious of their cause. The soldiers themselves weren’t as united, or passionate in their mission. And, to make matters worse, the involvement of American-trained anti-Guerilla forces gave the revolutionaries – starving, divided and listless – a real, embittered enemy to contend with.
The film’s aesthetic mirrors this shift in the content. In contrast to The Argentine, which was mostly filmed with steadicam shots, Guerilla uses handheld cameras; equally, Alberto Iglesias’ score, orchestral before, is now sparse and distant. This makes the film more intimate, but also much more claustrophobic and oppressive, giving it a slow-burning tension as the narrative winds towards its hopeless conclusion. Del Toro’s performance is still powerful, and he is given more room to impress as Che’s fortune runs out; whereas in The Argentine, Che is at the height of his powers, in Guerilla he slides from strength to weakness, admitting his mistakes and, in key scenes, losing his composure. By the end, he is haggard, hairy, injured and succumbing to his asthma, yet still retains the solid core of his ideals.
The Argentine was quiet, complex and surprisingly objective, but still had a strong vein of accomplishment – that the Cuban communists were fighting on the side of history. Guerilla, by contrast, is a much more downbeat, even harrowing affair. It studies the other side of the coin – a revolution that flies against the odds, and doesn’t triumph.
While both Che films add up to an often baggy, uncompromising 4-and-a-half-hour epic, their quality lies in their ambition and duality. Furthermore, they break the mould by refusing to rein in history, subjugating it to the medium of cinema. Instead, characters, events and context spill out from all directions, inciting the viewer to explore the period on their own after the film ends. As a whole, they present a kind of political, biographical film that manages to inspire interest without resorting to crass polemicism or Hollywood sugar-coating.
Extras The bonus material for Che Part 2: Guerilla is more substantial than with The Argentine, featuring 50 minutes of supplementary interview footage, with Del Toro, composer Albert Iglesias, and Che biographer and international investigative journalist (on the disc described as ‘Che Expert’) Jon Lee Anderson. On the whole, they suffer from a similar flaw as the Soderbergh interview on Che Part 1’s disc – these sequences are filmed as promotional material, with no on-screen interviewer. Questions appear as intertitle pop-ups, and are mostly banal (‘How did you get involved in Che? Was the process of filming fun?’), with the interviewee fading in and out as required – often fading out mid-flow, in order to cut to a more bland topic. This lack of dialogue, and heavy-handed, stop-start pacing, means that they are quite a droll, alienating viewing experience.
Del Toro, despite being the film’s co-producer, not to mention one of the most proficient, skilled actors of his generation, is surprisingly awkward and ineloquent about both Che as a man, and Che the film, meaning his 6 minute interview is charming, but shallow – and, like with Soderbergh, seemingly recorded against the clock during the film’s promotional tour. Proving much more informative are the segments with Iglesias and Anderson, with the former discussing the thematic qualities of both Che films better than the director and star, and the latter making good use of 32 minutes to discuss Guevara’s legacy, the film’s relevance, and his own insight into and experience of Cuban history, with great depth and an engaging lucidity (‘He was at once Icarus… and Mick Jagger’). These two interviews are much more in line with what a film like Che deserves – although the lack of proper documentary footage, of either the filming process or the historical context, is still a glaring omission for such a provocative slice of cinema.