Rating ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ◊
Che: Part One, in which Steven Soderbergh documented the struggle to overthrow Cuba’s Batista government, was the portrayal of an ascendancy. As Ernesto Che Guevera and his guerillas neared Havana, the pain and strife of life in the Cuban jungle melted away and the shared dream of a glorious coup began to be realised.
The second installment of this epic story is the inverse of the first. Che: Part Two depicts Che’s ultimately failed attempt to inspire communist revolution in Bolivia. It starts with a letter read to the Cuban people by his great friend Fidel Castro, in which Che declares the end of his affiliation with the cause in Cuba. “Other struggles require my modest service,” he says.
Che sneaks through Bolivian customs in disguise before donning his fatigues and joining fellow revolutionaries deep in the foothills of the mountains. Unlike in Cuba, Che’s campaign is debilitated by factors out of his control- his chronic asthma, a factious group of guerrillas, peasants whose fear of the local authorities render them untrusting and unaccommodating and a cunning national army inspired by a covert CIA.
As in the first film, Soderbergh is careful only to reveal the outer man. So many films revolve around the slow exposure of a character’s flaws, crises and inner-conflicts. It is such a basic and well-established convention, faithfully and consistently practiced in the annual, jostling merry-go-round for an Oscar nomination, that the audience have come to expect it. When a director has the bravery and ambition to do the opposite, as Soderbergh has here, the result is undoubtedly disconcerting.
The iconography of Che and his compatriots is endlessly cinematic, and is captured with an ethereal grace and hyper-real precision of detail. One does wonder, however, whether the film would benefit if a degree of insight were inserted, a flash of vulnerability or indecision on behalf of Che, or a moment of anger and despair over the prosaic nature of the peasants in who his faith is irrevocably placed.
For me, Soderbergh has committed himself to making a film of unusual scope and enterprise, and to try and psychoanalyse Che with conventional dramatic techniques would both trivialise and compromise his project.
Soderbergh has succeeded in wholly excluding himself from the mainstream, creating a picture that is opaque and mysterious, a study of exteriors rather than interiors.
Some will stare into the depths of this film and see nothing but the thinnest portrait of a man and a few tips on facial hair and how to smoke a cigar. Others will see an uncompromising spectacle that is alienating and illuminating in equal measure, and infinitely absorbing.
Either way, this is a committed and serious piece of film-making, and a unique portrayal of rise and demise.