Che (Part Two): Guerrilla

Following the success of the Cuban Revolution, Che Guevara is at the peak of his fame and power when he vanishes without a trace. Resurfacing some time later in the jungles of Bolivia, Guevara sets about recruiting a new band of insurgents to help him spread the revolutionary message across the rest of Latin America. But as the Bolivian government and CIA close in on him, this will prove to be his most dangerous campaign yet.

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The man behind the t-shirt design.

MELBOURNE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: What do you do with a famous
life that’s been reduced to a single iconic image on the t-shirts of 40
years’ worth of teenagers around the world? The obvious answer would be
a narrative-driven demystification, a biopic of strenuous and
exhaustive detail. But if the subject is Che Guevara, the most famous
revolutionary of the 20th century, then the fitting response would be
to upend the status quo.

Steven Soderbergh’s two part,
four-and-a-half-hour dissection of Che’s working methods, as opposed to
his achievements, is akin to an act of guerilla warfare on the
historical epic. Like Che in the mountains of Cuba 50 years ago
plotting to overthrow President Batista, the pictures are intent on
toppling the existing regime of Lawrence of Arabia and Reds.

Soderbergh’s
two films do not play to the rules of genre. They’re selective rather
than episodic: The Argentine documents Che’s campaign with Fidel
Castro’s revolutionary movement in Cuba from 1956 to 1958, interspersed
with his scenes from official visit to New York in 1964 to address the
United Nations; Guerilla traces the downward spiral of his campaign to
repeat those earlier successes in Bolivia during 1967, culminating in
his capture and execution by CIA-trained units of the Bolivian army.

The
filmmaker’s approach is similar to the change in historical studies,
where in recent decades the 'Great Man" theory of history has been
replaced by a more nuanced understanding of underlying social forces.
Soderbergh certainly has as his subject a great man, but the
similarities of his actions in Cuba and then Bolivia, which draw
virtually completely opposite results, suggest that there were factors
at work greater than the considerable will and self-discipline of Che
(played with gruff charisma by Benicio Del Toro).

Anyone expecting a sequential life story, or even the warm intimacy of Walter Salles’ The Motorcycle Diaries,
the 2004 depiction of a young Che’s formative journey through Latin
America, will be frustrated. Soderbergh and his screenwriters – Peter
Buchman for The Argentine, Buchman and Benjamin A. van der Veen on
Guerilla – are taken with action as example. The most important quality
in the two revolutions, they suggest, is momentum. Che had it in Cuba,
but not Bolivia, and the films likewise build up a considerable
momentum through the accretion of detail observed in the field.

Soderbergh’s
tacit judgment of Che is to suggest that he was only truly alive when
he was engaged in fighting (at the U.N. the rifle is replaced by fierce
rhetoric). It’s only near the close of The Argentine, for example, that
Che mentions that you learn that Che has a wife and child back in
Mexico City. The young soldier, Aleida (Maria Full of Grace’s
Catalina Sandino Moreno), he reveals this to is briefly seen again at
the opening of Guerilla – nine unseen years later she Che’s second wife
and the mother of their passel of children.

There is little
exposition or defining philosophical discussion in the two movies. Che,
a young doctor born and raised in Argentina with a revolutionary
ardour, has only know Cuban exile Fidel Castro (Demian Bichir) for a
few hours in Mexico City when he decides to accompany him back to Cuba
for armed struggle (82 combatants arrived, 12 survived). The questions
of an American journalist (Julia Ormond’s Lisa Howard), who interviewed
Che during his American sojourn, frame The Argentine to a degree, but
Che’s answers are guarded, meant for the historic record, and often
subtly different to what the film reveals.

While the two films,
both photographed by Soderbergh under his usual nom de plume of Peter
Andrews, have a differing visual sensibility – a wide screen formalism
for the successful campaign of The Argentine and a handheld,
increasingly restrictive aesthetic for the defeat in The Guerilla –
they’re both clearly Soderbergh’s work, in that they have a calmly
evaluative feel, inquisitive editing and a detachment from politics.

The hero of Soderbergh’s very first feature, Sex, Lies, and Videotape,
was James Spader’s Graham, a disaffected social refugee from Ronald
Reagan’s America, and ever since his protagonists have reacted to
personal situations and within insular milieus (Michael Douglas’ drug
war czar in Traffic,
a political animal, resigns because he realises his position is futile
and secondary to his family’s needs). So Che is for the oppressed and
against American imperialism, but he articulates it in brief, humanist
terms. There are no searing speeches to the troops, no conversionary
sermons.

There are only brief mentions of actions his detractors
hold against Che – numerous execution warrants he signed during and
after the Cuban revolution – and the movies are clear in having Che
acknowledge them and their necessity to him under his guiding
revolutionary principles. This approach to the man suits Del Toro,
whose soulful expressiveness is best seen when it slowly shines through
as opposed to being amplified. He humanises the character with a sly
sense of humour and a workmanlike optimism, not even in the final days
in Bolivia do the doubts show.

Perhaps his most revelatory
dialogue comes at the very close, when he briefly converses with a
Bolivian soldier guarding him the night before his execution. That’s
typical of a cinematic diptych where the tenets of legend are present
but never bowed down to: Che is an impressive field commander, but also
a chronic, sometimes debilitated, asthmatic, while Fidel Castro is
boisterous but also cunning and clear-headed. The Argentine and
Guerilla, which rightly need to be seen together, are historical works
that are focused on being in the moment (that also renders Matt Damon’s
cameo intrusive and unnecessary).

Shot comparatively quickly, as
international co-productions with independent funding, they make for an
engrossing, immersive experience. They’re war films as a guide to
philosophy and while they cleave away the great majority of Che
Guevara’s life, they leave you with a sense of the man and his
motivations. He’s been rescued, in an unexpected way, from the confines
of a t-shirt design.