Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Che: Part Two (2008, Steven Soderbergh)

The second and final chapter to Steven Soderbergh's biography of Ernesto 'Che' Guevara is a tragic counterpart to the first. Whereas Che: Part One charted the success of the Cuban revolution ran by Che and Castro Fidel,  Part Two follows the Argentine as he flees Cuba to start an uprising in Bolivia, an unsuccessful mission that led him to death in 1967.

After Che has entered Bolivia disguised under the false persona of a US representative from Uruguay, he rendezvous with his men in the mountains and builds, as before, a political army of guerilla fighters. What at first starts out as a band of strong merry men full of conviction soon descends into abandonment, or at worst treachery as food and medicine become increasingly scarce. As the Guerilla's strength gradually wavers and the Bolivian government moves in, we see Che's undoing in efforts cursed rather than inflicted through poor leadership. 

Once again the script is built from Che's diaries and interviews from those who worked alongside him. As before it's mostly interested in the small details, never giving into Hollywood biographical cliches its substance stems from the sum of its parts, lots of very small ones. This refined approach to Che's endeavours in Bolivia sets out to reveal the sacrifice and hardship of the Guerilla lifestyle, the extremity of it but also the strained and tedious nature of it. These men gave up normal lives with family and loved ones to live in grave isolated conditions, all for their cause. Through the course of the film it picks apart the lifestyle, exposing the nuts and bolts of the Guerilla life. Results are hardly 'cinematic' and viewers with no real interest in Che's life will find it hard to endure, it's not an easy accomplishment and makes for a rather gruelling experience, that's the point. At 135minutes, low on thrills, and never pressed to make a hero out of its titular hero, it doesn't try to impress in its low-key manner. The film requires us to endure as the soldier do, witnessing their downfall at each step of the way.

The film has a washed out look, perhaps a conscious decision on Soderbergh's part to comply with Che's own disastrous efforts, we know after all this mission will not end as Cuba did as his luck fades. Along with Alberto Iglesias' minimal melancholy score, and the perpetuate numbering of days marking Che's stay in Bolivia, it further highlights the impending tragedy waiting. This gives Che: Part Two a quality setting it apart from its predecessor, though being the weaker of the two it has a sadness and sense of dread that keeps it engrossing. The focus is lifted even further from Che, with the view widened to incorporate the efforts of Bolvia's government. They have grown scared of his power for change and his unprecedented sacrifice, with the help of the US they plan on eliminating him to ensure power. 

Taking another step back from Che, a man meant to be the centre piece seems like a misjudged step, though it's more of a bold one. In its entirety Che is a four plus hour epic about one of history's most famous figures, he is to this day making change in the heart of others while remaining just as controversial. This biography sets out to rid Che's persona of worship, not by judging but presenting events as accurately and honestly as possible. We're never granted access to Che's thoughts, he took them with him leaving only journals and comrades who live to tell his story. He was a remarkable individual but never played here as a hero here, making the film a successful historical piece rather than a character study.

When Che's capture and eventual murder finally comes it makes for a profoundly sad end. Injured, tied, and lost in a mass of overgrown matted hair, he never looks weak knowing he's defeated and death imminent. His guard asks if he believes in God, not seeing how a communist can have religion, he replies, "I believe in mankind". Suddenly gunned down in his holding cell without much hesitation, Che dies an honourable death none the less. Though this tragic end to an exceptional man is a shocking finale juxtaposed with his previous victory in Cuba. Leaving behind him a wife and five children, his life spent entirely to others, he fought for quality life robbed from so many. 

We never get close to the man as the filmmakers know this to be a false move, instead observing as if fighting alongside him, staying at a distance as a soldier would from his superior. Making a film about Che Guevara was never going to be easy and Steven Soderbergh and his team hardly make things easier for themselves, adding truth to their picture without weakening its effect with populist spectacle.