“Maybe our failure will wake them up”
After the mild disappointment from Che: Part One – The Argentine, I began to anticipate something better with Che: Part Two – Guerrilla. I probably should have taken the subtitle more literally than I did as I thought maybe this would show us the political conversations and aftermath of the Cuban fight for freedom from Batista. The black and white flash forwards of The Argentine showing the UN speeches and fervor surrounding Che Guevara showed what I hoped would comprise a big chunk of the conclusion to the story. However, Steven Soderbergh instead decided to show the actual guerrilla warfare used in Bolivia as Che fought to repeat his Cuban success. Unlike the structural shifts in the previous installment, this one is quite linear as the plot progresses from his arrival, incognito, to his eventual capture at the hands of the Bolivians. Guevara believed everyone should want what he had given Cuba, not realizing his ideals and courage to fight for freedom wasn’t universally held. Those in the fight could not have been happier with him as their leader, it was the people on the sidelines, those that were so easily recruited in Fidel’s war, which turned against him.
Everything that did work in the first film was thrown out for this one. As a result, the movie is actually pretty boring. We are given a detailed look into the frontlines as the insurgents wade through Bolivia trying to take out the government. Battle after battle, everything stays very much the same as they go city to city, doing their best to find victory hidden beneath the death. A crucial piece to the puzzle comes from Lou Diamond Phillips’ small cameo as Mario Monje, the leader of the revolutionary group who was more for political talks and compromise rather than violence and fear. Guevara, played brilliantly once again by Benicio Del Toro, has already started the fight and due to his win or die mentality, will not back down. He is a stubborn man believing unquestionably in himself, knowing that what he is doing is the only way. Che is most definitely setup to be the hero and martyr many feel he is throughout this film. Glorified as a leader of men and a man of superior knowledge on mankind, Guerrilla is not much more than a vanity piece, showing what happened to him in his final year, never backing down and never giving up.
Again, though, is this man worthy of such praise? People around the world hail him to be a murderer and evil, but you would never think it to see Soderbergh’s epic tale. The man is afflicted with constant asthma attacks having left his medication behind, stays at the front of the charge, helps those in need with his medical expertise, and leads a ragtag bunch of revolutionaries towards victory. Che is a God amongst men here, even when captured he holds such a charismatic mystique, brainwashing the guards with his celebrity to the point they want to talk to him even if they are employed to keep him captive. No one is beyond his hold, something so innocently powerful he can turn even the youngest boy into a fearless warrior, one that will follow him to his own destruction.
While it all is a straightforward war epic, fight after fight, slowly advancing and retreating depending on the outcome, we are thrust into the jungle for almost the entire film. There is no breathing room jumping back to civilization as in The Argentine, instead we stay entrenched in the battle. Because of this exotic locale, we get some stunning shots. A scene containing a group of soldiers, attempting to find their way back to Che, crossing a river is breathtaking. Due to events we see, the audience knows an ambush is likely and the suspense is high while they cross, guns over heads, music at a minimum. The overhead view is stunning and just one example of visual flair thrown in the mix. Another is with Che peering through trees at an advancing Bolivian army. Framed in blurry leaves, the army is shown with crisp silhouettes in the distance, walking through and setting up position; the composition and movement is very well done.
Along with the artistry also comes moments of contrivance. I don’t know if Soderbergh didn’t want too many characters running around—there are a lot—but one family on a farm, father, mother, and six children, come into play often. It’s as though they are the only family in all of Bolivia. Che treats them well, offering extra money to buy livestock; the Bolivian army take over the land for shelter; the separated group, containing a Spanish speaking Franka Potente (how many languages does she speak?) look for advice on where to cross the river; and the Bolivians force them to give any information they can on the insurgents’ whereabouts. This family is as much a crucial part to the war as Che’s inclusion if the script is to be believed.
The final twenty or so minutes, dealing with Guevara captured, redeem a bit of the monotony that came before it. It is his final stand against the Bolivians, saving face and never showing fear, being the model example of a martyr, knowing his death might be just the thing to band the Bolivian people together. Del Toro knocks the part out of the park, transforming from the balding gray disguise needed to clear customs to eventually become the Che we know from the t-shirts and posters, long hair sticking out from underneath his hat. A gorgeous point of view shot at the end just adds one more instance of artistic touch, trying to make up for the more or less static camerawork shown the rest of the time.
If there was more explanation I might have become invested in the proceedings. Instead we are quite literally dropped into Bolivia and made to follow these soldiers as they do what they do, without rhyme or reason. Such a different style than The Argentine makes you feel like you could watch them separately, but with almost no character development, you’d be absolutely lost with Guerrilla coming in cold. Soderbergh definitely has created something intriguing and original, unfortunately it just doesn’t quite work. Pretty to watch, but slowly paced, this installment could have been a ten-minute epilogue to the first part, describing what happened to Guevara post-Cuba. Instead, we are subjected to an entire war with no purpose other than to show his capture. The war was a Vietnam scale debacle and an interesting fall of Icarus from the first’s victorious fight. I just feel Soderbergh thought it was more than what it actually is. A bit bloated and unnecessary, I’d be interested to see what might happen if both films were cut together, an hour excised. Then maybe we’d have a tightly constructed full biography; otherwise, the whole experience is just too much to stay engrossed with.
Che: Part Two – Guerrilla 6/10 | ★ ★ ½
courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival