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Che, Parts 1 & 2

USA/France/Spain 2008
Directed by
Steven Soderbergh
131/137 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Andrew Lee
3.5 stars

Che, Parts 1 & 2

Synopsis: Based on his diaries, this is Ernesto “Che” Guevara’s account of his Cuban and Bolivian revolutionary campaigns told in two parts.

A box-office flop, Che is the engrossing and disappointing telling of the story of one of the icons of the 20th century. Alberto Korda’s classic image of Che has been so widely turned into posters plastered on t-shirts, graffitied onto walls, quoted and parodied that is has generally ensured that even if you have no idea who Che was, you at least know he existed. He’s the poster boy of both aspiring revolutionaries and disaffected white kids everywhere. But the man himself isn’t that well known. For myself, it wasn’t until Walter Salles excellent The Motorcycle Diaries (2004) came out that I started to learn anything about him. And having read about him since then, I’m very disappointed by what we’ve been served up here.

First off, the films, both of them, are very well made. There’s something comforting about being in the hands of a master filmmaker, and Soderbergh knows how to tell a story, frame a shot and in general make an excellent film. Benicio Del Toro’s depiction of Che is excellent, and he deserved the Best Actor award at Cannes for his portrayal. But what frustrates me about these films is what they omit.

Part 1, subtitled The Argentine, tells the story of Che’s role in the Cuban revolution. We follow him from Mexico where he was personally recruited by Fidel Castro (Demian Bichir) right through to just before the taking of Havana. We see the inner workings of a revolutionary army: The ad hoc promotion of people, the difficulties of keeping discipline in a volunteer unit and the importance of an ideal to hold everyone together. It’s a very upbeat story, as the people want revolution and want to be free.

Part 2, subtitled Guerilla, tells the story of Che’s disastrous Bolivian revolutionary campaign. Having taken Cuba, he busied himself exporting his brand of revolution to the rest of the world. Here we see failure on a massive scale, a work of ego rather than love, and a sad end to a man whose ideals were noble, even if his methods were questionable. This film is where, much like Che’s, Soderbergh’s project fails. While it dramatises the failures of his campaign, the desertions, the difficulty of recruiting, etc, it doesn’t give enough time to the reasons behind his failure. Che believed that revolution was important, that people needed to be liberated, even if they didn’t want to be. He was in Bolivia to start a revolution that nobody wanted, in the hopes that once the ball started rolling, people would be drawn to his cause. It does get moments of attention, the most potent being when his bedraggled crew need supplies and a priest (Matt Damon) tells him he can have some, so long as he goes away. But despite several mentions, the film displays an unwillingness to delve into what drives Che to persist with something that is clearly unwanted. The arrogance of his beliefs, coupled with the love for humanity from which they came, would make for an amazing character study. Unfortunately we don’t get that, we just get a slightly detached telling of a poor guy who can’t catch a break and ultimately dies for his beliefs.

But most disappointing of all, given the exceptional run-time of these two films, is the notable exclusion of Che’s post-revolutionary role in Cuba. His position as commander of the La Cabana prison where he was responsible for the execution of those considered traitors and war criminals would have been an interesting addition. It’s the uglier side of revolution that isn’t countenanced in the romanticised views of political overthrow we get in Part 1. A brief reference in Part 2 by a man saying Che executed his father is about as much as Soderbergh seems willing to acknowledge of this time.

Che, Parts 1 & 2 are an excellent subjective story of someone who might equally be regarded as a hero or a monster, depending on your political views. But four hours later, you’ll be no closer to getting any insight into the man. Soderbergh resolutely keeps him an enigma, which is perhaps why he remains an icon.




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